21 January 2012

“Our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream” (Jacob 7:26)

Rootstech in 2 weeks! I should be dreaming about that. I am so looking forward to those 3 days of fun and learning. Second thought: I am dreaming about what personal and family history mean to me, sorting out in preparation to learning more. Let me explain. I spent last night combing through a huge pile of “stuff” in my uncle’s pick-up truck. No, not real stuff, not a real truck, not even a live uncle. In the dream I was sorting the accumulated detritus, the debris of a lifetime, not my lifetime, but that of my father's family.

It was a crazy quilt of things from my dad, used lighting fixtures and drapery rods, old posters, notes and illustrations from long-ago lessons given and forgotten. But no, not forgotten, because here they were in the back of the truck. In the stacks of well-used items there were also treasures, sparking memories of the past, things that my cousin said she would like. There were items left over from my grandparents’ life. As I sorted frantically - my uncle was waiting for me to finish - scenes of the past flashed through my mind and heart.

My sons (or variously, my brothers) helped me move mattresses and bed frames to another pile of “things we might want.” The family reunion we seemed to be attending was almost over and my uncle was ready to go home and join his wife. (In real life, this particular aunt has just died and “gone home to join her husband.” Ah, dreams.)

My son, who was valiantly helping me, hurt his hands in the process of moving the large items, but continued the work. My brother, on the other hand, declared himself finished with this madness and left to go to bed. My cousin who was there grew bored and reminded me that her dad needed to leave. I felt the pressures of my helpers’ pain (waiting, getting hurt, getting fed up) but I couldn’t stop. I continued to walk down memory lane, walking, not even able to run, but carefully examining each item. Why? Although we occasionally discovered some valuables (jewels, if you will), what I was getting out of this process were not the bits and pieces I was looking through, but knowledge and insight about my own life.

If you have sorted through the lives of family members or even your own life in the process of writing or preparing to write family history, you understand this dream. If not, grab a helper or two and tackle a pile of stuff, either real or imagined, and learn what it has to teach you about living and about yourself. Hope to see you at rootstech where we will continue this journey.

09 January 2012

Finding the Fun in Funerals

I don't mean to treat the subject of grief lightly. I have experienced my share. However there is an upside to a funereal family gathering. Last week some of my family members gathered at the funeral of a dear aunt. Death at her age was not a shock and she had wished to pass on for some time. Her grandchildren made a fine showing in speech and song and I think most of us felt gratified at the goodbye gathering.

Ralph and Doris Whitney
with sons Calvin and Howard
I am blessed with 7 sisters, all good company. The week before the funeral, two of my sisters and I took the occasion to scan the family photos we had inherited from my deceased father. We then organized them and copied them onto several DVDs as a slide show and as a computerized resource for our extended family. Four of us traveled together to the funeral which was held in a city a few hours distant from our homes. Now that was a treat! And I must admit that it was also very fun to reconnect with my cousins. At the luncheon afterwards we had a photo taken of all of us cousins together. Dozens of cousins. This is a family that has excelled in family reunions so it felt good to get together once more even for a somber occasion. Instead of flowers, we shared the photo treasures we had worked so hard on.

Then the day afterwards one of  my sisters and I asked for some interview time with two of the remaining siblings from my dad's family. My dad died about 6 years ago and others have left us in the meantime, including the aunt whose funeral we attended. Another cousin had videotaped some of the group a few years back so we had some follow-up questions from those interviews and also from the photos we had just reviewed. My aunt and uncle were so gracious to us. They talked freely about their memories and the two hours we had set aside went too quickly.

Howard, Bert (Dad) and Calvin
We tried to follow good interview protocol, using open-ended questions and giving the interviewees plenty of time to think and to come up with the thoughts and memories they desired to share. We had resolved to just listen and not talk too much on this occasion. We used two digital recorders to make sure we didn't miss a word if one malfunctioned. We waited until we were well into the interview to ask a couple of hard questions and they volunteered some sensitive information we hadn't even asked for. Best of all, we felt the joy they had experienced in growing up on their family ranch. No running water, bathroom, electricity or telephones, but they reported the same feelings our dad shared with us about the ranch. It was a wonderful and exciting place for these children. They never missed the "modern" conveniences, but accepted and enjoyed their lives as they were. We marveled once again at the parenting skills of our grandparents and the love shared in that long-ago home.

Home again, I have spent some time in research on this family. After visiting with my aunt and uncle, watching the videos shared by my cousin and spending time organizing the family photos, the documents I found meant much more to me. I think we are on the road to another book!