From a distance, genealogy seems to be the study of those old, dry details of relatives long forgotten—or never known at all. Thanks to that perception, it comes quite easily to search through what would otherwise be considered macabre details—when and how they died, where they were buried, what they left behind to be catalogued in their will.
As we get closer to the ones we knew, personally, the tone seems to soften—to become almost fragile—as memories are dredged up from their submerged resting places. Perhaps it is frightening to re-open the lid on recollections kept far away because of their potential to hurt.
And yet, it is likely those to whom we owe the most, the ones who invested in our own lives.
Perhaps that is why reawakening those memories can hurt so much.
There are lots of unfinished projects in my files with my mother's name on them. I went out of my way to secure a copy of her journal after her passing years ago, and yet, do I have that transcription project completed? Of course not.
I had wanted—with a treatment much as I have done for others' stories here at A Family Tapestry—to tell my mother's story, but the closeness got in the way. In some ways plain as a housewife's resume, in other ways as enticing as an actress' lifestyle, hers was a different path.
It was always different, no matter what stage of her life. Born on a farm in Iowa, she wasn't the child of farmers, nor a descendant of Iowans. When childhood was supposed to be filled with all the comfort and stability of home and friendships and family, hers was a desperate journey through America's Great Depression—sometimes following, sometimes staying back and awaiting a paycheck from, her determined father, always steadfast to his resolve to support his family, come what may.
From her mother, long after her passing, it was the saved newspaper clippings which told me the details of my mother's decision, after high school graduation, to leave home and seek her fortune as an actress in the great city of New York. Photographs from my mother's own albums witnessed the story unfolding—up until the day, that is, when she chose to tell a certain someone, "I do." With that exchange of vows came the trading in of a glamorous night life in the city for the mundane details of life in suburbia. A home of her own. A family. And, eventually, a new career.
Some people can never stand still. What to others might be the end goal becomes to others merely the dressing room for their next starring role. Back when people didn't do such things, my mother decided to enroll in classes at the local community college. She took philosophy. She took German. She studied French. She majored in English. And moved on: A.A., B.A., M.A. And then, accepted into a doctoral program, when...
Things never stay the same. At least, that is how it seems. The rhythm of daily life—by then, having become the sequence of studies, exams, repeat—was once again upset by an unexpected turn of events. With my father's passing, everything seemingly came to a halt. The studies were discontinued—the hope of inserting the term "temporarily" eventually gave way to the reality of "permanently"—replaced by the prospect of simultaneously selling the house and finding a job.
That old, continual pilgrimage to seek employment from a generation past reared its spectral visage as my mother sought work across the country—from New York to California to Minnesota. And then, finally settled in the place she once knew as home: Columbus, Ohio.
Even a return home didn't guarantee the journey was over. As I look back on it now, it seems my mother lived an entirely new lifetime in that city, fulfilling various roles throughout the more than two decades since her return there. It became like a second home to us, her children—not only through memories of our own childhood in visiting our grandparents, but again with her return, as we brought our own families there to visit.
Somehow, buried in all the details of an ever-changing life full of goals and duties and detours, perhaps I missed something in the narrative. Only in retrospect can we sometimes realize the lessons learned from the blur of events which once rushed past our eyes with disorienting speed. I sit down now at my computer to transcribe a page from her journal, witnessing the thoughts she captured more than twenty years ago, and begin to have thoughts of my own. Not just along the lines of "What did all this mean to her?" or "How did she feel about what she was going through?" but "What does this mean to me?" What can I learn from what she learned?
In burying those memories during the times in which their recollection was too raw, too painful, we sometimes neglect to return and revisit them from a safer distance when the time is right. Perhaps this is an inner voice prompting me to plan on making that return trip. The journal is still there, the transcription task still unfinished. From a distance safe enough to heed the call, it would certainly yield me the advantage of a useful message.