Each of us are linked to the past through our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on, as far back as we can trace, and beyond. Our values, attitudes and views are, in a large part, flavored by our heritage, coupled with our many life experiences. Each experience or interaction we have with another people, adds to our individual makeup. We react to these experiences based on what we have learned about ourselves and the world to this point. Think of the learning process as a huge computer database. We have in that database the things which we are born with. As we age, we continue to add experiences, impressions, and events to that base of information. With each new addition, the database automatically changes. Sometimes the change is slight, sometimes it is significant, depending on the input, but always it changes. Our database continues to change throughout our life and is the basis for the way we view life and the memories we have. Some of the memories will be good and some painful perhaps, but these memories affect the way you approach life.
The human resource is renewable but the memories and lessons learned by individual generations are fragile. Shared and given freely to others, we keep memories alive long after we are gone. Kept to ourselves, memories wither and are lost forever. In the past, the art of storytelling was a way of life. Through storytellers, the history of the tribe or family was made secure for another generation. So important was this gift that the storyteller was given a special place of honor in the tribe, serving as an important link between generations to keep the history and lore of the tribe alive.
In our modern society, the art of storytelling is still alive and well. A good storyteller can still hold an audience captivated and bring a smile to the face or a tear to the eye with the twist of a word or the turn of a phrase. Our modern storytellers are ministers, politicians, teachers, lawyers, standup comics, authors or anyone else whose job it is to relate a message, convince or entertain with the spoken word. The power to summon up visual images of places and events with the spoken word has always been a powerful tool and something that can transcend barriers of age and time to connect one generation with another.
If you fashion some experience, real or imagined, into a story and relate that story to another human being through the written or spoken word, you are a storyteller and a member of a very prestigious group. If you pass that story on to your children or grandchildren, then you are assuring your immortality through the next generation and you will have given their minds food for thought and a connection with the past on which to build their future.
For example, do you remember life before central air and heat, color television or private phone lines? When houses had 10 foot ceilings, big windows in every room, a coal furnace and in the front yard there stood a large oak tree with a rope swing attached? Like some families, yours had a solid black dog named Spot, a orange and white striped cat called PQX, a parakeet named Piccolo Pete and your best friend lived two houses away and walked to school with you every day.
Remember when houses had "real" front porches? Remember how your parents would sit on the front porch swing in the summer while the kids played hide-and-seek? As you got older, you shared the front porch swing with someone special, holding hands and sharing dreams. It was an unhurried time, a time when we actually knew our neighbors on a first name basis and the term "neighborhood" meant more than just a geographic location. It was a time when families sat down together at the dining room table for a leisurely meal and caught up on events affecting the family.
Remember when the pace of life included time for a Sunday afternoon drive with the family in the family car, picnics, a visit to the zoo or the regular weekend stop at grandmother's house for supper? It was a more relaxed time, before there was a computer in every house and a color television in every child's room. It was a time before satellite dishes, cable TV, the shopping channel, superhighways, computer viruses or killer bees. Well, I remember, and I think you probably do too.
I urge you to take the time to share your experiences with others. If you want the history of your community or family left to the interpretations of someone else, then simply do nothing. Someone else will interpret, for future generations how you felt, how you viewed the world, what you thought and what contributions you made. Those interpretations, values, and views of your world will be passed on to future generations and those will become the heritage of your children and grandchildren. It is important for you to remember that recorded history, as we know it, is only the memories of someone who took the time to write them down.
Write down or record your memories, talk about what happened during your lifetime. Give future generations a taste of the past so they can better prepare and evaluate events of the future. Many community and county historical societies have programs to verbally record local history. I hope you will check on the availability of these programs. If there isn't a program in your area, encourage someone to start one. It was once said, "If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it." It is equally true that if we can learn from the past, we will be better prepared to face the future.
If you would like to contact someone who can tell you more about how to become involved in recording your memories, contact:
I hope you will take the time to make your past part of your families future.
There are many days when my genealogical research seems like a twisted vine withering on a dilapidated trellis, parched and thirsty with no rain clouds in sight. On those days, I invariably ask myself why I am doing it. There are occasionally days when the vine blooms in a glorious flower and yields the sweet scent of a life lesson, mine for the taking. On those days, I'm rewarded with the answer. Such a day occurred on a recent trip to Jackson County, TN. The rather modest goals of the day were to meet two Sanders cousins for library and courthouse research and then to search for the graves of some long gone ancestors. It was the cemetery search which spoke its lessons to me.
The cemetery to be searched was a small Reeves family plot reportedly located in Baugh Hollow, just north of Gainesboro. I was accompanied by Charles Allison Reeves, Jr., my first husband and still a good friend. Driving out a narrow gravel road, we saw no signs of the cemetery. Eventually the road came to a dead end. It seemed to be time to stop and ask for information from the locals. Haven't we all experienced reaching a dead end in our research only to have to stop and ask for help? We were directed to a nearby field. So, we backed up and started again. How often we also must start anew in genealogical research. This time, taking a different fork in the road, we stopped the car in the middle of a narrow gravel road which was quickly running out of gravel. Thinking we would only have to walk a short way, we set out without our cameras or walking shoes, not really prepared for the road ahead. How often are some people really not prepared to accept and deal with unsavory or disappointing family secrets unearthed by our research?
The gravel road ended and became just a muddy dirt road through a low, grassy cove. Charles was ready to turn back, believing that no one would have chosen such a low wetland area for a cemetery, but I encouraged him to go just a little further up to the next bend in the road to see what lay around the next curve. How often in our research have we needed the help and encouragement of a friend to urge us not to give up on a seemingly dead end pursuit but to keep looking just a little further? Eventually it became obvious, even to me, that the terrain, alternately rocky or low and wet, was not a likely place for a cemetery. Wading across a small stream, we began to explore a hilly area. We must have looked quite lost because the man who had given us directions came by in a pickup truck and hollered, "You're looking in the wrong place. It's over yonder under a big tree in the middle of the field!" How I wish someone would appear to redirect me when I've unknowingly gone astray in my research!
Perseverance finally paid off and we discovered a small ivy-clad cemetery, totally fenced with a stone wall. I was struck by the beauty of the gravestones. We had at last found the resting place of Charles' great-great-grandfather, C.E. Reeves. It was exciting to realize that these were also the ancestors of my child, and without these departed souls, neither Charles nor my son would be here today. I felt a sense of gratitude for the existence of those now so long past and reflected on how the threads of our life begin before we are even a dream in the minds of our parents.
How different these worn gravestones looked from those of today, a reminder of the passage of time and the changes it brings. The inscriptions, though clearly visible and readable, were beginning to fade even though they were all less than 100 years old. Is nothing, not even stone, permanent I wondered? How long will it be before they are completely unreadable . . . before no one remembers . . . before no one cares?
The gravestone of Charles' great-great-grandfather was a beautiful vertical monolith of granite, artfully carved with a blanket or scarf of tasseled fabric draped over the top and a large book, perhaps a Bible, resting on top. As I studied that fabric of stone, I was reminded of how family connections are often the fabric of our lives, holding us together, urging us on in our searches for those who have gone before us and how every day our lives are writing the book of our earthly existence. I wondered if someday our descendants might be searching for us in some long-forgotten cemetery and wishing that they could read the storybook of our lives. As Charles photographed the gravestone, I encouraged him to photograph the back side for completeness.
What a surprise! On the back side of the grave stone was the name of his great-great- grandmother! She was lying in rest at the head of her husband! How often in our research are we so elated at a discovery that we overlook nearby treasures?
The rather lighthearted research goals of the day began to be overshadowed, for me at least, by a more serious life lesson. The trip was making me acutely aware of the passage of time, not just for those for whom we search in libraries, courthouses and graveyards, but in my life as well. I was pondering over this awareness of being in the middle between the past and the future, when I noticed on the side of one of the gravestones the following fading, inscribed verse:
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so must you be
Prepare for death and follow me.
That seemed now to sum up my thoughts of a day in which I had caught glimpses of the past in deserted homes, barns, fields, and cemeteries . . . a day in which I had also had to spend time with and deal with my past and present. It occurred to me to wonder if one of the things I am doing in my genealogical research is preparing for my own death, trying to set the record down straight and true while I can, trying to uncover all I can about my past, in case some descendant somewhere down time's future corridor wants to know about me, about what I was like, about what characteristics I may have passed on to them. Am I trying to discover what of me is from those who have gone before? Am I trying to discover who my ancestors were as people, not just in their ancestral roles of parents and grandparents? As I stood in the small quiet cemetery, the haunting question came to me, "What more do I need to do to prepare for death? Will I have the strength and courage necessary to make the time to do it? Will I learn this life lesson in time?"
As we drove back to Knoxville, I thought about a simple field research trip that became a life lesson I had learned today--our history, once written, is permanent. It is not changed by the passage of time that erodes the inscriptions on our aging granite grave stones. My place in the continuing chain of family remains one of the few things that seems unchanged throughout the changing scenario of time. Even through divorce, death, remarriage, sad times and glad times, the fabric of family connection blankets us, is a part of whom we are and whom we will be, who our ancestors were and who our descendants will be. We are not the beginning or the middle or the end, but part of a hopefully unending chain that will continue to provide comfort and structure in a changing world.
It's no wonder that in our research we gladly stomp through muddy fields, willingly back up and start again when faced with dead ends in our research, peer over musty records in court house basements, and rejoice when finding the last visible and touchable link to a family member whom we were not privileged to know in person.
We are doing important work in our research. We are helping to preserve the continuing chain of family throughout the passage of time. As we make unsuspected discoveries, occasionally venture down the wrong road, and receive help from those we meet along the way . . . we keep on seeking. In research . . . as in life.