It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, so buckle up – it’s going to be a long one! Grab yourself a cup of tea – go ahead, I’ll wait.
For the last six weeks or so, I have been doing some research on our family history. This effort requires a little background. I come from a family of story tellers. Our stories have been told and re-told and passed down through generations. Even with such a rich oral history, some stories are never told and some are meaningful to some and less meaningful to others. My sister, Rosie, was an avid family researcher. There was no stone left unturned when trying to uncover the history of some of our lost family members. She ALWAYS wanted to talk about this, and at the time, stupidly – I just was not interested. When Rosie passed away, it left a big hole in my heart and all the work she had TRIED to share with me, I had casually dismissed.
Let’s get this straight. I could care less if I am related to anyone important. It’s cool because they made an amazing contribution – often to the very foundation of our country. What I have come to appreciate more are the generations upon generations of people who came before them. People who were hardworking, tired but dedicated individuals who made this ‘important’ life possible. Those are the people who really interest me.
My great-grandfather on my paternal grandmother’s side disappeared. We know our great-grandmother raised her children alone after her husband was ‘run out of town on a rail’….a horrible thing, if true. Google it and you will see the references. Finding him was the bane of Rosie’s existence. She died without finding him so I have taken on her quest. I do not have her reference material so I started from the ground up. Now let me say this is the way to do it. You learn about your family and where you come from and how much they sacrificed. It is not always easy – there are ‘brickwalls’ as they are known in genealogy circles. Frustrating places where your history just seems to STOP. That’s when the footwork begins.
My Step-daughter and I have been working together to try to find something out about her paternal great-grandmother, Hattie. We know from the oral history in the family that she died during or around childbirth. Records were not kept on births, deaths or marriages in South Carolina until 1915 which was after she passed away. Hattie just disappeared and her son (my husband’s father) was given up for adoption and the records to this day are sealed. Luckily, the oral history has been rich enough that we know the names of the birth parents and siblings as well as the adoptive parents. But there are several ‘brickwalls’ here, as well.
You will discover how difficult it is to trace women in your background as names changed and when you discover older records did not include the names of spouses or children. I am a mother-in-law and a step-mother and a step-grandmother – all labels I dislike but I understand the need for them. I am never about usurping someone else’s name, title or position. I am only about loving who I love and they are all dear to me. The truth about our history is that when you fill this position, you will often drop off of family records because you are really not part of the family per se. I understand this logically, because I’ve done it myself. It’s about having a manageable family tree. I can only hope that the people I love in this life will remember that I loved them and the titles will be meaningless.
My journey has taken me to places I never imagined and I have learned so much about the difficult lives our ancestors lived. Hattie, for example, worked in the cotton mills as a child. I have read through wills and seen the horror of men, women and children who were slaves in this country passed down as property. This makes me so overwhelmingly sad. There are registries of forced sterilization in this country. People were sterilized because of eugenics, therapeutics, or criminality. It is but a small piece of the horrible history in our country. Mental patients, unmarried women who became pregnant, certain ethnic groups, and people who were incarcerated were sterilized to control the norm.
There are also wonderful benefits of research – you will discover a wealth of information and history. You have the opportunity to read old original documents, even transcribing them so they will be available to others digitally. You will learn things about your family and yourself that you did not know. You will refresh your knowledge on history as you travel down little rabbit holes that really have nothing to do with your research. That is the joy of genealogy. You may discover where a family name comes from or may understand why you seem to have an inherent interest in something. Most of all, you will learn how inter-connected we all are – and that’s a valuable lesson.
The overwhelming thing for me is coming to an understanding of just how many people have traveled before us and how relatively new our country and our history is. It can awaken your own sense of mortality when you read death certificates and see how many people have come and gone. This is why a sense of family and belonging is so important. You live through the stories that will hopefully live long after you do. I was startled one day when my cousin Garry, who is planning our family reunion, posted a quote that made me stop dead in my tracks:
“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
I can honestly say I am now speaking names of people in our respective families that I never knew before I started down this path. In some small way, their name is still being spoken so they are still very much alive. I found a photograph of my great-grandfather that I had never seen. I found the Grindstaffs – Granny always told me the moles and freckles I had were from the Grindstaff in me. Never understood it fully until now.
I have a fuzzy memory of my grandfather eluding to some horse thieves in our family and I would love to see that documented. All the things and all the places and all the people who came before me created this life I enjoy today. Our family – from my grandparents to my grandchildren – is who we are because they were.
I hope you will be inspired to document something about your life. Record your names and your faces and your voices. Sometime, somewhere someone may be looking for you and discovering exactly who you were will give them insight to their life that they could never have achieved otherwise. I want my family to know their history and speak the family names. In this way, those who worked so hard to make this life possible will not be forgotten.
I’ve hung out with my dead relatives so much I sometimes dream about them. Maybe they are trying to tell me something.