Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Short Note About The Long Trail of Family History

Summer is the chance for many people to make some headway on the never-ending trail of ancestors’ history. Vacations have a way of detouring to cover research-worthy territory, whether stops at cemeteries or days at prime library destinations. While I’ve had my chance at the library rendezvous with relatives earlier this season, I wasn’t beyond adding another detour on last weekend’s trip.

I had the chance to head south last Friday, and through a series of what seemed to be misadventures, still salvaged some time on the return trip to visit family.

Though we had everything else to talk about, somehow the conversation this weekend meandered onto the subject of family history. How could it not? This research thing has a way of throwing curves at us—dislodging convenient family traditions and replacing them with unexpected truths.

The pressure of time weighs heavily on us all. For some, this awareness presents itself as a retrospective observation: those who regret not having thought sooner to ask the important questions about family. For others—and I think these are the rare few—there is the urgency of obligation: sensing that time is short, wanting to share what can be shared before memory seals up the last glimpses of a bygone generation.

The weekend’s visit concluded with this second sense: a call to get together and preserve the memories—those family stories of the previous generation—so that they can be passed along to another generation. Even if that new generation doesn’t yet know that’s what they’ll want.

Because someday, they’ll realize that they want to know, too.

Discussing this dynamic brought up an interesting point. History can only fully become history if there is someone to receive the stories. There needs to be a receiver of the past who is also willing to serve as the one to pass the stories forward. Just like following the links in a chain, though, unless someone else subsequently steps up and joins that line as the next receiver, the stories will stop mid-process. History is only one link away from being forgotten.

A story needs a willing audience. And that audience must, in turn, become the next generation’s storytellers.

History can’t keep being history unless it keeps being passed along. 

Above left: "Summer," by nineteenth-century German painter and etcher, Adrian Ludwig Richter, courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. You are so right. I am busy compiling STUFF in hopes that my daughters will eventually care.

    1. Wendy, we all do what we can do. Someday, your daughters will find themselves in different situations--perhaps situations in which it will make sense to want to know more about their past.

      Keep in mind there will also be others who will want to know. Whether they are distant relatives you've never yet met, or neighbors who wish to learn from what you've done in compiling your data--there will always be someone for whom your "stuff" will represent a treasure.

  2. Wow! You couldn't have said it any clearer! I cant get the younger generation interested in family genealogy at all. Sure, they want me to print it all out and give them photo copy's, but they have no desire to continue when I'm gone. What will happen to all I have found out and done after that happens? Its really sad and it upsets me sometimes when we are at family gatherings and all they want to do is eat, text, and leave.

    1. As I've found out from conversations with a cousin (whom I've never met), there will be someone who is interested in all that you have found. Amazingly, we seem to find each other--we family historians who can't resist that call to pass along those stories and records. It may be discouraging to see the ones you want to value your work not seeming to care--but be encouraged that there will be someone out there who will care. Like almost everything else in genealogy, it's just a matter of connections.

  3. All the "old ones" in my family with memories - with the exception of my Mother - are gone for me. My family situation is such that there are no close cousins to share things with. The closest cousins I know of, are 2nd cousins and usually 2-3-4 and even 5 times removed.

    I feel my family tree branch is like a remote, lone unpruned branch sticking out the "wrong side" of the tree.

    Of the research work I've done - and recovering a lot my cousin Franklin did - I've no expectation of passing it down to my niece or nephews.

    BUT... the journey has been worthwhile to ME. I've learned and understood and "resonate" with those that went before me - and I've time-traveled in a way, vicariously living their times (if not their lives).

    ...imagine... a young orphaned girl marooned in Jamestown about 400 years ago... one of only a couple dozen survivors of stavation and Indian raids... marrying a young man when rescued... who's property formed a Virginia plantation *that is still there today*... and being told by Ancestry.com that this person is your "10th great grandmother"...

    1. That scenario definitely resonates with me! You are right on about what we, ourselves, get from this journey!


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