I recently started a project to chronicle our family’s history. It started as a labor of love for my children, but it has grown into something much more satisfying. My project began when I discovered that no one in our family could find any photographs of my maternal grandmother. She was a strong, determined, powerfully religious woman who raised nine children while contending with the ravages of racism, sexism, poverty, and domestic abuse. Without any photos of her, I found myself struggling to remember what she looked like. She died when I was around ten, but I can only recall two memories of my grandmother.
The first involves chickens. Grandma would always go into the yard, grab a fat chicken with her strong callused hands, and wring its neck. Watching the helpless bird spinning to his death always disturbed me. And its flopping around on the ground until it died made dinner much less appetizing.
The other involves my cousin. After my grandmother doled out our chores, my cousin, who wanted to play instead, called my grandmother a “bitch.” I was panic-stricken as that vile word escaped his lips and lingered in the air like a heavy fog. Grandma’s tiny body stood rigid until the gentle lamb turned into a lion. She grabbed my cousin by the scruff of his neck, dragged him outside, grabbed her bullwhip, and taught him a lesson in respect.
While these two memories are violent and unsettling, they are etched in my brain. But this is not how I want to remember my grandmother. I wish I had fonder memories to replace these, however, there are none. I realize that memories are fleeting, but I want my children to have a more tangible idea of where they came from.
The first step was building a family tree. I used the tools on Ancestry.com, but I’m sure there are others available. I’m able to post photos on the tree and write anecdotes about each person. My father-in-law sent me a story about his mother that I have added to the collection. Here is a brief excerpt of what he wrote:
“She stood about five feet tall though she always claimed to be five feet two inches and for most of her life weighed about 130 pounds. I witnessed her lift, without aid, one of those old refrigerators, the first ones with the internal motors, clear of the ground to move it so work could be done behind it.”
Although, my children never knew her, she has become more real to them through this story. My research has made many of my ancestors more real to me also. I never knew my paternal grandfather, but I feel closer to him than ever before. I found his military records and learned he was about the same weight and height as I am and that he served with a Corp of reporters in World War II. I was thrilled to find out that he was a writer just like me.
My project is still in its early stages, but I’m excited about the possibilities. Save for a few Bibles inscribed with birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths our family’s history was undocumented. Now, I have an outlet to give a voice to some of my forgotten relatives.
If you haven’t done it already, I encourage you to start a similar project for your family. How can we be true men without knowing about the ancestors who gave birth to and nurtured us? I guarantee that you and your family will benefit greatly from the effort.
Question: Do you know where you came from?