Friday, April 17, 2020

Wisps and Snippets
of the Digital Preserve

The story of Luther and Lucy Fischer hit me just right when I discovered it last week, thanks to a comment on a Find A Grave memorial for Luther, but something else occurred to me, as well. After all, Luther was first cousin to my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Broyles McClellan. Wouldn't they have known each other? Wouldn't that close connection have incorporated that detail into the broader fabric of our family's history?

The conclusion I arrived at, after mulling this one over for a while, was: no, they likely would not have known much of each other. Here's why—and a mental exercise you might attempt as you navigate the twists and turns of your own family's branches.

First of all, though Luther's mother, Sarah Rainey Fischer, and my great-grandmother's mom, Mary Elizabeth Rainey Broyles, were sisters, that doesn't mean they were lifelong neighbors. Sarah Fischer raised her family in their native Georgia, and though she temporarily moved from her hometown in Coweta County by the time of her first marriage, her return home for the birth of her first child happened to nearly coincide with the birth of her own sister Mary.

Then, too, when Mary was old enough to marry, both her parents had already died, and she was under the care of her aunt and uncle in another county further removed from home. It was in that county—Muscogee County—where she wed distant relative Thomas Broyles and removed even farther from her Georgia home to live on his property in Tennessee. In a brief six years—by the time her sister Sarah had remarried and given birth to all but the youngest of the Fischer children—Mary had already died in childbirth by 1877.

By then, Luther was barely six years old. His cousin, my great-grandmother Sarah—perhaps named after this very sister of Mary—was not yet three years of age. While my great-grandmother remained in her father's home in Tennessee until a few years after her marriage, there was likely little chance for her to visit her mother's side of the family after her father remarried. Once my great-grandmother left Tennessee as a married woman, she and her own young family settled in Florida.

There are likely many other such stories of disconnected family lines. And there are likely just as many reasons why families grew apart over history. Every reason from the call to migrate westward to the dynamics of large families and their inherent age disparities from oldest child to youngest yield cousins who may have known next to nothing about each other.

Yet, some of those cousins—and, multiplied over generations, their descendants as well—were the recipients of the disparity in bestowing details of the family that others never had the privilege to know. Think of everything from saved letters to journals to photographs to heirloom furniture or keepsakes. Or something as simple as a preserved memory. Some cousins got the goods; others lost out—or never even knew what they were missing.

When I see traces of these tokens in the wisps and snippets we family historians manage to share with each other—online, across the miles—I realize this may be the only way some of us get to learn more about our families. Ours may have been a legacy of the cousin who moved west and never got to grow up with the children of aunts and uncles, a connection so close yet made so distant due to unavoidable circumstances.

Virtually, now reaching out through the ether, we are snatching these vanishing wisps and preserving them in a form tangible enough to pass along. We save them, and wait. And hope that someone else—perhaps through a Google search—will stumble upon that memory, preserved in place through our efforts. When we meet, we and that distant cousin of whom we previously knew absolutely nothing, we digitally multiply those artifacts of a separated family, sharing yet never losing what we've inherited, in the wonders of online genealogy. Those are the connections which most keep me in awe of the happenstance of this digital preserve of our heritage.

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