Taking it to the grave…family histories

I was talking to my sister Maureen about family history and how serendipitous it is. To think for example, that you could be standing  in a checkout line in Colorado only to find out that the person standing in front of you in line is named Harper and is descended from the very family that your Mother knew  in rural eastern Ashtabula County, Ohio  way back in the early 1930’s . It seems the world shrinks as you age and meet more and more people and your information about your own family expands so does your awareness of the interweave of family’s connections to each other and the entire family of man. But sometimes it just gets to a really unbelievably tight point where you have to think God in her wisdom set the circumstances up. 

So on top of all that with the research going on you find all the different connections and stories and trails leading off into areas that you never heard of. What a surprise! Your own family isn’t always the little painted picture you’ve been told. Parents, family and friends can only tell you things they are aware of. So sometimes it is the children we never heard of generations back in our family  surfacing once at 9 years old in a census and then never seen or heard from again. Or perhaps former wives and divorces that have disappeared off the radar. Or “Grass Widows” the polite way of saying the husband went out for a pack of cigarettes in 1840 started a new family 2 towns over and never looked back. There was no divorce so you weren’t a real widow but a “Grass Widow”. Perhaps it was a such a painful loss of a little one and the parents simply couldn’t talk it, or terrible hard time in the family too hard to tell the next generations about. For instance I just found out from a cousin about a supposed hanging in southern Ohio that would have explained a relative that just disappeared off the family radar without note. Now I have to document that this occurred. Along with buried treasure you’ll find volumes of family trash that your parents and grandparents have neatened up out of love and hope for the next generation. Or perhaps they themselves weren’t made aware of Uncle Fred’s sad habit of (whatever) or untimely demise due to some rather odd circumstances. It’s just normal to be proud and talk up all the positive to the little ones and perhaps shade the facts concerning problems or distasteful facts into disappearing from the family history inside 2 or 3 generations through taking it to the grave. We all do. It’s the human condition to try to make our lives livable sometimes through omission. We may not outright lie to the next generation as much as we perhaps don’t point out our giant clay feet.  After all,  look all the other  fine features we have. 

It seem that back in 1840 people were pretty much just as good and bad as they are now and sometimes didn’t bother always get divorced, or for that matter married. They still don’t. Some just leave their lives and move away and start  a new life leaving wives and husbands and children by the wayside. So there’s that. Then there’s the fact that not every child ever born has been child of the Father on the birth certificate. People get scared, and hurt, they lie, they just plain wish the Dad’s they really want were the Fathers of their babies. I kind of think it’s really the guy that shows up after work every night that gets the golden ring of Fatherhood anyway.  The Father’s day card should always go to the guy that loved you enough to do homework each night or attend meetings with the teachers or took you to cub scouts let alone loving and feeding and holding you . Now that’s your Father, that’s your DAD. Anybody else is just a blood donor.

Anyway it was during the course of this conversation with my sister Maureen that I realized that no matter how much fine documented research we do on family matters  of Awards, honors, hangings, births, deaths, marriages…it’s all just a matter of our poor perception backed up by the stories the family decided to share and put on public record by way of baptism, census , birth and death certificates.

 It’s whatever that little piece of carefully preserved microfilm or paper says. Period.

I don’t believe most people, why would I believe a piece of paper? It’s such a squirrelly world. My sister thinks I’m a romantic because I write my own openended interpretation to all these lives and deaths that have surfaced in our reconstruction of our family times . Maybe I am, but I just love what Elizabeth Berg wrote about the human condition in the most exquisite sentence describing it I’ve ever read. She wrote and I quote,

 ” I am living on a planet where the silk dresses of Renaissance women rustled, where sap runs in the spring, where children are caught in crossfire, where gold glints from rock, where religion shines its light only to lose its way, where people stop to reach a hand to help each other to cross, where much is known about the life of the ant, where the gift of getting my husband back was as accidental as my almost losing him, where the star called Sun shows itself differently at every hour, where people get so bruised and confused they kill each other, where Baobabs grow into impossible shapes with trunks that tell stories to hands, where rivers wind wide and green with terrible hidden currents, where you rise in the morning and feel your arms with your own hands, checking yourself, where lovers’ hearts swell with the certain knowledge that only they are the ones, where viruses are seen under the insistent eye of the microscope and the birth of stars is witnessed through the lens of the telescope, where caterpillars crawl and skyscrapers are erected because of the blue line on the blueprint I am living here on this planet, it is my time to have my legs walk the earth, and I am turning around to tell Jay once again, “Yes, here.” I am saying that all of this , all of this, all of these things are the telling songs of the wider life, and I am listening with gratitude, and I am listening for as long as I can, and I am listening with all of my might.”

Phenomenal. You and I. What a life.

Excerpt from book, “Range of Motion” by the amazing Elizabeth Berg ( of course a brilliant nurse also)  and published by Random House 1995

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3 responses to “Taking it to the grave…family histories

  1. Nice article and beautifully written – very best wishes from Brian in Scotland UK.

    • Dear Brian,
      Thank you for the encouragement. Literally just when I needed it. Your making it a wonderful New Year!

      Sheila

  2. What a great bit this one is, it sums it all up so well and so honestly.

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