Monday, December 5, 2016

Can Your Own Memories Help
Break Through Ancestral Brick Walls?

Last weekend brought with it the perfect elixir to turn even the surliest of Scrooges into cheer-spreading holiday ambassadors. Here in northern California, the sky was brilliant blue, the temperature pleasant, and the sun uncharacteristically inviting for a December day. I spent Saturday's noon hour celebrating with our local D.A.R. chapter for their Christmas luncheon. Then, with a friend, I strolled the nearby village-style shopping center, enjoying the sights, sounds, and wintertime treats.

We settled in at a sidewalk cafe to enjoy a mocha, chatting and watching passers-by lug their bundles. A family friend came out of a nearby store, heard my voice, turned and greeted me; she was with her grandchildren, bringing home bagels for the next day's breakfast. The daughter of a college friend walked by; despite the holiday cheer, I know her life right now is one that could use a lot of support, so I ran to catch up with her and deliver at least a hug.

The chance encounter that gave pause, though, was when what I thought was a young woman tentatively intruded upon our conversation to ask, "Is your name Jacqi?"

She turned out to be someone whom I hadn't seen for enough years to fill two generations. When I last saw her, she was a child of about ten, whom—with her friends and neighbors—I and my husband had taken to church on a weekly basis. While the families in her neighborhood were probably quite poor, I didn't think much of it at the time; it was just an offer extended that people could accept, if they wished. We probably connected with these children for about a year, then life moved on.

Now, she told me the children with her and with her husband were her grandchildren. They had stopped in at the coffee shop to get hot chocolate for a little extra warmth. We reminisced over how long it had been since we last were together, when she mentioned, "You made a big impact on my life."

Really? Can the little things we do take on such significance for others whose paths we chance to cross? Apparently so. We weave a human web of inter-connectivity. Even in our most fleeting relationships.

I couldn't help but realize that the earlier episode in my life—the one this chance encounter brought back to mind—wouldn't be one that my daughter could remember, if she ever takes to reconstructing the lives in her family history. This event occurred way before she was even born. The story line, however, could reveal some key points about that portion of a lifetime, though—if anyone were to know about it.

That got me thinking about people in my family tree—people I knew from my own childhood. What stories might I have caught just a glimpse of, and, if I chose to follow up on them, might reveal some clues about that lifetime? These are the stories I need to call to mind, once again.

I remembered doing some research on my dad's early adult years when he played in dance bands of the 1920s through 1940s. The names of some brothers kept coming up in my searches: the Ferdinando brothers. Turns out, they had an orchestra which toured, eventually ending up in the Manchester, New Hampshire area—the very place where I found my newlywed father living in a later census record. Did I know any of that when I was a kid? Of course not—I was even surprised to learn it when, as an adult, I found the family in the 1930 census. But seeing photos of the band as an adult, I realized these were the same guys teaching in the music studio where my dad worked in his later years, when I was growing up. How was I to know these guys had a piece of history in their background?

I think of other stories told by family members—seemingly insignificant at the time—which in retrospect lead back to significant clues about my parents' and grandparents' history. Admittedly, some of those might well be tall tales—like my southern grandfather's claim to have been related to John Wilkes Booth—but others may be worth pursuing.

The linchpin to all this, though, is that these memories may be lost unless we preserve them. I can't help but realize this when, greeted by a long-lost acquaintance sharing childhood memories, I realize I've never written down that life episode.

Stories are one of the cozy accoutrements of the winter holiday season. We may provide little snippets of our family's life this year in our annual brag Christmas letters sent far and wide. But unless we reach deeper in our personal history—and find a way to capture this—those stories from earlier years will be lost to our grandchildren's family history saga.

More importantly, ever notice how remembering one story triggers the memory of another story? When they begin to fall out of your head and, domino-like, leave a trail on your notepaper, you may discover, in all the excess baggage attached to those memories, some clues to your family's background that can guide your hand in your genealogical pursuits.

Above: "Kulig" (sleigh ride), undated oil on canvas by Polish realist painter Zygmunt Ajdukeiwicz; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I think this is one of your top 10 best posts.

  2. Jacqi,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Thanks, Jana! I always appreciate your list of good reads!


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