Given that it’s spring break, I’m taking some R&R, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve continued to read about Cole’s Cavalry – at times getting so involved in depictions of battles that my heart pounds.
I’ve been known to be audible as I read, annoying some of my colleagues, or even my husband. “Oh my!” “Hmmm..” or “Oh!” escapes my lips, and it makes a person within earshot wonder what I’m reading that’s so engaging (or conversely just makes them want to tell me to shut up). I have to be particularly careful in a research library!
In fact, I’ve come across a masterfully written family history by Ian Frazier, aptly titled Family (so even the densest of us can understand). After his father’s death, Ian was lucky enough to inherit boxes of letters, books and memorabilia from his family going back generations. Add to this his immense research into social history, personal trips to places where his ancestors trekked, and his skillful use of figurative language. (“I read gravestone inscriptions disappearing like movie credits into the advancing sod” or “..plowing left the fields scalloped against the sky.”) Needless to say his family history reads like a novel. I can barely put it down.
What I like best though his how he articulates the why.
Why is family history so engaging? I’ve tried to articulate that myself to people who ask. I’ve repeated some of the usual phrases that I see others attempt: “History is important.” “We don’t know where we’re going if we haven’t seen where we’ve been.”
I’m always on the lookout for how people answer that question. With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed several articles by the FNP on people pursuing history in and around Frederick County. Deborah Brower said “There’s so much information out there….it’s so important.” Moses Coleman said in his FNP interview, “I just wanted to keep my family story going.” Joe Collins, a researcher from Frederick County said “You learn from your past.” Professor Rick Smith from McDaniel College leads his students on genealogical quests to uncover their own and African American history in the area. One student commented that he didn’t really understand immigration until he saw his own family’s name on a ship’s list.
In the Washington Post, Vernon Peterson, caretaker of a Loudon County cemetery, said a ‘spirit seemed to grab him.’ It inspired Kevin Grigsby to conduct research on little known African American Union Soldiers from that county. There was even an impassioned request by J. Allen Byrne to the FNP entitled “What about the Irish Americans?” He felt historically left out after African American Heritage month and wanted to see more Irish American histories in the paper during March. Those were only a few of the stories I’ve seen recently. Clearly, history grabs many people.
Ironically, I never really liked history until my formal schooling ended – until my grandmother showed me from her research that history is personal. It belongs to me.
In my blood I have the history of immigration from England, Germany, Ireland – and I may yet find more. I have the history of the Mayflower, the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush in 1849, and the Colorado Gold Rush in 1859. I have the history of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and yikes, the history of one of the bloodiest Indian massacres at Sand Creek in 1864. I can stop in states from the Atlantic to the Pacific and find personal family history each step of the way.
Within me is United States history. And there is so much more history out there. There are so many more untold stories. That makes it a tad more interesting to me.
Because my interest in history has been ignited I now love it even if I don’t have an immediate personal connection to it. But Frazier is able to articulate something additional I’ve felt – and I think other family historians do too. I call it “the REAL why.” He says, “I wanted my parent’s lives to have meant something…..I hoped maybe I could find a meaning that would defeat death.”
In other words, to me the “real why” behind understanding our history and our place in it is to try to frame our stories and give meaning to them. Our stories are the legacy we leave behind. When we learn our own stories, we also learn to respect others’ stories and the history that goes with it. For implied in sharing a story is “I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours.” For me, history gives voices to those that might not have had one and helps us appreciate those voices more.
In Horton Hears a Who Dr. Seuss taught us that “a person is a person no matter how small.” Tracking family history stories is akin to the “Whos” from “Whoville” when they scream “We are here! We Are Here! WE ARE HERE!” If we don’t tell our own stories, then who will? If we don’t share our stories, what legacy will we leave behind?