Sunday, February 18, 2018
When Your Family History is
Being Written Right Now
Most of the time, genealogists believe they are preoccupied with the details of lives lived centuries ago—or at least decades ago. The things that shaped our ancestors, redirected them to the places where they lived or the occupations they filled or even the people they married, those are the details we search to uncover. In the process, we sometimes uncover those hard truths that dashed their dreams or broke their hearts.
Sometimes, that process of discovery is so removed from our present that we are immune to the experience that enveloped the ones who endured the event. The crisis becomes, for us, an unusual story, not a painful memory. We forget that, in the moment it unfolded, it evoked strong feelings and perhaps even redirected outcomes for families. We can only relate by remembering similar events that may have happened in our own lives.
When those events do happen to us, we sometimes get knocked from our role as the family historian, the keeper of the family narrative. Enveloped in the pain of the tragedy, we drop our pen to participate, abandoning our narration of what is currently unfolding, forgetting that, in the future, this very experience will become our history.
That, I can attest, is a natural outcome, given the circumstances. Here I am, having done the very same thing these past few months. While the whole world, it seems, joined in to celebrate holidays from November through January, our own extended family was rocked with devastating news: the four year old granddaughter of my husband's cousin was diagnosed with cancer. A brain tumor manifested itself around Thanksgiving time, needing immediate surgery. The procedure revealed that not all of the tumor could be safely removed, requiring a sequence of chemotherapy treatments for the next half year.
For three weeks out of every month, this little one needs to remain in the hospital, not just for the chemo, but on account of how it also impairs her immune system. For one week out of every month, little Bea gets to return home to her family—a family which recently moved to a different house, and into which a brand new baby was just welcomed. Life goes on for the family, but how different is the direction now taken.
Events like this, remembered years later by siblings, demonstrate how life-changing are the marks we leave on each other. Sacrificial choices, made to help out, shape us in ways we may not realize as we are going through the process. Invisibly but indelibly they constitute the person we become. Afterwards.
In one way, such changes are so stressful as to suck all the verve out of the activities we usually take joy in. For those of us who consider journaling, or recording reflections on, our daily activities to be essential, we may suddenly lose all desire to write down the minutiae of a process which could, in the end, turn tragic. Yet, in many ways, keeping up that writing habit could turn out to be therapeutic—while, if preserved, could provide a history for the family in generations to come.
Right now, there is no doubt that the experience is full of strong feelings—and yet, it is coupled with that stoic determination to just get through life, doing what can be done, and leaving the miraculous to those for whom such touches are meant. And yet, in such trauma, it sets the stage for those who can rise to the occasion to do selfless, sometimes heroic, acts. Sometimes, those selfless acts of kindness are small—like the friend of the family who set up a GoFundMe account for Bea's medical expenses—and sometimes they are the kinds of sacrifices that no family member would think twice about doing, like the grandparents who take turns flying across the country to watch the rest of the grandkids while dad is at work and mom is at the hospital.
Stuff like this may not be considered family history. It isn't—yet. But what we do every day will eventually become part of the history our descendants will someday wish they could find about us.