Monday, February 29, 2016

Two Parts to Telling the Story

Being part of an overnight vigil at the bedside of a loved one may or may not be part of your personal history. Our modern culture has been sanitized of most signs of the inevitable nadir of the human condition.

Despite this, the other night, I found myself sitting in a darkened hospital room, waiting. Among other aspects, waiting intertwines tightly with one of my personal pitfalls: that of a mind which actively wanders. Like a heat-seeking missile, given the opportunity, my mind zeroes in on all the rabbit trails meandering away from the issue in focus. And so, while the silent night hours dragged on, I caught myself thinking of another woman—one much more experienced in such bedside vigils than I.

Her name was Martha Cassandra Boothe. Lest you assume that name, sounding overly presumptuous, was attached to a person of great importance, perhaps it would help restrain your mental-image-designer to know that, in her tiny hillside community, she was referred to as Aunt Cassie. As in, "Send for Aunt Cassie; Ma's almost gone now."

The only reason I know this—after all, such comments were uttered in the wee hours of mornings well over a hundred years ago—is because someone told me. In fact, the only reason that person—my mother—knew is because someone told her.

By now, I'm sure you've guessed that Aunt Cassie was somehow related to me. If so, you are right: "Aunt" Cassie was my mother's paternal grandmother. That she was known far and wide as the go-to person for bedside vigils for the dying in Erwin, Tennessee, I owe my gratitude to the one who told me—and the one who told her.

In researching family history, the buzz right now is all about "story." We've got all the technology to deliver many of the documents we need to verify why we stick those family names in the right spots on our family tree. We're so beyond those names, dates and places. Now we're clamoring for the details—how and why our family maneuvred around those places and dates and with what life details those names are connected. And the details of that "how" and "why" become their clearest and most memorable, embedded in our family's stories.

While the race is on to uncover the details for those family stories, there is something more than the content of our stories to keep in focus. We need to recall the importance of the process of storytelling, as well.

Thinking about "Aunt Cassie" reminds me that there are two aspects to the benefits of that storytelling process.

The first is that, as a craftsman of the stories of our family's history, we are capturing and preserving the why of our family's meaning—the importance of our family's history, both in terms of those living during our ancestors' lives, and in the context of our own time frame, the era of that ancestor's descendants. If our ancestors hadn't preserved that oral history of the life and times of our family, how would we have even known? For that, we must thank those family members who had the foresight to pass along those stories.

There is, however, a second aspect we need to remember. Not only is it important that someone back in time told the story, preserved it and delivered it to the ones who told us, but it is also essential to realize that we are not the end game of the family storytelling relay. We have to remember to take our place in this chain of family micro-history and pass it on to future generations. And that is the second aspect: the essential element of equipping others to tell those stories to future generations.

Some prefer to encourage interest in family history in the young by seeking out books geared to their level. Some feel that supporting fledgling genealogists is the answer, and are advocates for scholarship programs or writing contests. No matter how we infuse subsequent generations with the zeal to keep these treasures of family history alive, we must achieve that goal of preserving the stories by encouraging and equipping future generations to partner with us in passing on that family history legacy.

Aunt Cassie holding a rabbit in front of her home in Erwin TN circa 1940



  1. Replies
    1. Aren't they priceless?

      I love the people who had enough foresight to pass down those stories so we could know them, too!

  2. The take-away I get from this is the human part - the cycle of life as it applies to the human that loves his/her family. The joy of the born - and the sadness of the loss of the treasured elder. Without this - we wouldn't be ... human.

    Technology has been dehumanizing.

    1. Yes, technology has its down side, and yet it's been technology that is allowing more of us to tell more of our story than we ever could have done before--and connected us with each other in the telling of it!


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