Thursday, February 5, 2009

What's Your Story?

I suppose it was inevitable.  I'd resisted it for years, but in the end ... well ... resistance was futile.  It was predestined: I am Southern and I am Celtic; I like historical things; I enjoy puzzles. It  consumed -- pleasantly, mind you -- the energies of my aunt, Margaret Haile, and I see how it dominates the thinking of my cousin, Norma Morgan.  It's addictive.  It is fun, but it is frustrating; it raises as many questions as it answers.  It is ...

Genealogy.  And if you think it's not important, then it's a fairly safe bet that you are not old enough for it to be important -- yet!

When I was very young, I spent a tremendous amount of time with my parents, especially my mother.  We lived on a cattle ranch outside of town (Arcadia, Florida), and neither of my parents was much of a socialite anyway.  My brother and I had frequent opportunities to visit our paternal grandparents, who lived a few miles away on a cattle ranch on another side of town.  We had occasional visits from my father's aunt, Dexter, who lived in North Carolina.  We also often saw our maternal grandparents, and had extended stays with them during the summertime.  In short, we spent a great deal of time with family; we were very comfortable around adults -- a perfect opportunity to really know them.  But we were too young to even realize what we might want to know about them.

Now my parents and grandparents are all gone, and I suppose it's in part because I miss them and want to feel connected with them, but recently I have spent a lot of time trying to uncover my ancestral past.  Poring over old census records has revealed a family structure that is quite unlike anything in our modern experience.  Looking at immigration records, I wonder what it was that spurred a family into leaving the country that their kin had inhabited for a thousand years, to risk an arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  What would it take to make me do such a thing?  In the new land: generations of people who were born, lived an entire lifetime, then died, all within the same small community.  Others who began their lives in that community, following the same pattern, but then set out by Conestoga wagon for a new frontier -- another dangerous and difficult adventure -- why?

I'm luckier than most amateur genealogists, in that both Margaret and Norma, on my dad's side, have already done a lifetime of work that I can use as reference.  In similar fashion, I have the work of Dr. Guy Funderburk, a distant cousin of my mother's, from which to draw.  I'm especially blessed to have memoirs written by my maternal grandmother; though she never did complete the work, it is not only a valuable tool, but a poignant glimpse into my near past; in some ways, it helps me to understand of her -- why?

How?  How did the Depression affect my parents and grandparents?  How did the Civil War affect my great-great grandparents?  How did the American Revolution ... the Potato Famine ... the Highland Clearances affect those generations?

And why? and how? have these events shaped me?

If you're a young person reading this, start asking questions now.  Make time; believe me, if you wait until you realize it's important to you, you'll have waited too long.  If you're a bit older, perhaps already with grandchildren, don't wait for them to ask -- and don't offer, either, because you'll likely get your feelings hurt -- just write it down; gather those old pictures and mementos, because they'll be of incalculable value to your family some day.  Believe me, the memories of trips to Disney World and clowns at birthday parties will pale in comparison to the enhanced memory of who you were.

As for my own search, though it's fascinating, I'll try really hard not to let it take me over!  It does seem to be something that can't be done well by "dabblers."  It requires a tremendous amount of concentration and concentrated effort.  It's almost impossible to stop in the midst of researching a particular individual or family or event; the times I've tried to do so, I've lost ground and had to backtrack.  So aggravating!  Among the more interesting relatives I've discovered: dispossessed German royalty who, after plots and machinations worthy of  Shakespeare, escaped across the Atlantic, only to drown off the coast of the Carolina colony.  Talk about a tragedy!  

Crowns and castles and dreams of lost inheritances notwithstanding, so far, the prize for Most Intriguing Character goes to a Tennessean named Catherine who, at the age of 16, was wooed and won by a beguiling and worldly stranger.  Though her family initially disapproved of the match, they, too, were won over by his artful manner.  So completely did they fall under his spell that, when he began to speak in glowing terms of the great opportunities to be had in the new state of Texas, they sold their property and accompanied Catherine and her new husband on a trip westward.  Sometime after the birth of her first child, however, Catherine discovered that her new husband was also the husband of another woman.  Heartbroken and outraged, she had her bigamist husband put in jail and, despite the fact that she was expecting another child, she set out to return to her native Tennessee.  She put her most cherished possessions in a cloth bag, dressed in her husband's clothes, strapped his pistol to her waist, saddled his best horse and rode home.  Woe be unto anyone who dared cross her during her journey!  Her second husband, by whom she bore six more children, was a casualty of the Civil War.  She married a third time and had five more children ... one of whom was my great-grandfather.

Catherine, my great-great grandmother; she sounds tough -- I like to think that, somehow, she passed some of that toughness on to me.  But at any rate, isn't it a heck of a story!