Celestia is of Latin origin, meaning “heavenly,” and evokes all things ethereal and otherworldly. It’s a diminutive form of Celeste and, more notably, “celestial,” the latter of which means “positioned in or relating to the sky or outer space,” “belonging or relating to heaven” and “supremely good.” My great-great-grandmother was a Celestia; she was born in October 1881 to William and Frances (Nelson) Merrill, and she was named after her aunt, Celestia Lurania (Merrill) Brand, and her grandmother, Melvina Sarah (Baker) Nelson. It’s not a common name anymore–one might even say it’s “unusual”–but in the 1880s, Celestia’s popularity spiked–and then extinguished again around the turn-of-the-century.
Celestia Melvina Merrill was the second of six children in the Merrill family–her nephew, Elmer, was a schoolteacher-turned-aerial-gunner during World War II–and she had the opportunity to finish school through the age of eighteen, indicating on every census record that she could read and write. She married Johan Arvid Persson–an immigrant from Föra, Sweden–on August 20, 1901 in Fredonia, New York, and the couple had eight children: Frances Caroline (b. 1901); Matilda Alvina (b. 1903); Alberta Marie (b. 1906); Margaret Isabelle (b. 1908); John Merrill (b. 1910); August Edward (b. 1912); Beatrice Maude (b. 1914); and Ralph (b. 1915). Celestia means “heavenly” and “supremely good,” and I can think of no better description for my great-great-grandmother; according to her children and grandchildren, she certainly lived up to the name.
My grandfather and his parents–Thomas and Beatrice (Peterson) Kuznicki–lived with Celestia in the little yellow house on Lambert Avenue during World War II, and Gramps remembers her as a strong woman: someone who loved her children and grandchildren fiercely, who understood the power of words and who chose each word with care. And she had to be tough, according to his stories: she had seven young children to provide for at home, and her husband worked around-the-clock as a firefighter, a job that is still fraught with uncertainty and risk. Through the War to End All Wars, the Wall Street Crash of ’29 and the Second World War, Celestia kept her family together, doting on her children and supporting their every aspiration–just as her parents did for her years before.
Celestia is listed as “unemployed,” “at home” or a “homemaker” on every census record, but that doesn’t tell her full story. Like her husband–a firefighter and militiaman in the village of Fredonia–Celestia was committed to public service, and I’d like to think that’s how they found each other–or that it’s at least what contributed to their decision to marry. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary Fredonia Fire Department–an organization established to aid regular fire services in the event of a nuclear attack–for decades, and I have copies of checks made out to the Department for “annual dues,” of awards from the organization’s yearly Firemen’s Balls and of accounts of the volunteers’ experiences on-the-job. It seems to me that Celestia cared for the members of her community in much the same way as she cared for her own family, giving her whole self to a cause she believed in.
Celestia passed away on September 18, 1950 at the age of 68, and my grandfather inherited the boxes of family photos stashed in the attic of the little yellow house on Lambert Avenue. There are dozens and dozens of candid photographs of Celestia with the rest of the family: there’s one of Celestia hugging her grandsons; one of her laughing with her husband of 45 years; and one of her and her daughters smiling ear-to-ear at a family picnic. She graced this world with laughter and love and joy, and there’s something beautiful about the idea of Celestia “belonging or relating to heaven” in the end. An unusual name, for sure, but I cannot think of a more-fitting or more-lovely name for my beautiful and lovely great-great-grandmother.