Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Search of the Past

I've probably mentioned a couple of times that I have spent many, many years as the family historian. The position entails a few more things than keeping up with current births, deaths, and weddings. There are all those same facts from the past. And the past facts aren't always the easiest to dig up.

It's interesting how families will hold onto secrets long after they could possibly harm anyone or affect any lives. And then with shocking abruptness, someone will decide to talk. Without that informant, much of that information might be lost forever.

I don't dig in my family's pasts just because I'm nosy. There are real bits of information that are important to know. Certainly a medical history for a family can make a huge difference in lives. So many diseases run in families. Ours has kidney disease and severe nose bleeds. One of my ancestors in the very early 1800s died in his twenties from a severe nose bleed. He left a young pregnant widow with a little boy.

The picture to the right is quite a rarity. It is both sides of my family. My mother's family and my father's family. My mother's family lived in Arizona. My dad's lived in Texas. This was taken at a rare family get-together before I was born. Many of the people in the photo are gone now. But I treasure the picture for the memories.

I mentioned to someone about all the family vacations we spent in cemeteries when my kids were growing up. My family never had the good taste to be buried in a nice civilized cemetery. Nope. My families were buried in tiny little plots hidden in the woods or out in the middle of corn fields or in one case, behind a derelict rest area on a little two lane highway in the middle of nowhere.

Locating such cemeteries can be an adventure all in itself. One summer the house hunk and I went to Kentucky. We took a notion one day to drive over two counties to the west to see if we could locate the family cemetery in Christian Co. When we arrived at the little town... well, it was a stop sign and a run-down little store that sold bait, bread, and beer. That was it. My sister-in-law and I went into the store with the picture I had of the grave we were trying to locate. We showed it to the lady behind the register.

First she lit a cigarette. Then she studied the picture for a while. And then she squinted off into the distance and drawled, "Waaaalllll, I 'member this here place mebbe. I was pickin' som akerns." (At this point, I was wondering what akerns were.)

Then she took another puff on her cigarette and tapped the picture. "Yep, I'm pretty sure I saw this out yonder where I was pickin' akerns."

Well, taking a deep breath I asked for directions. She told us go here, turn left there, go a little "futher", turn right.... and of course, you know that "we couldn't miss it." Riiiiight.

We hopped in the cars and took off. And of course, we promptly got lost. So I drove down the road a ways until I saw some men tearing down a house. I pulled in the driveway and hopped out. One of the men came to see what I wanted. When I explained my quest, he invited me into the barn. Now I would have really hesitated to go into the barn with the fellow, but my intrepid sister-in-law was with me, so into the barn we went. Inside, much to our amazement, the fellow had a huge blackboard. He proceeded to draw us a MAP. Heh.

After having a good look, we went back outside, got into our cars and set off once more. This time we ended up on a narrow lane-and-a-half road to nowhere. Finally, I told the house hunk I was going to look for a place to turn around and go home. Just then, he said, "I see headstones in the woods!" So I stopped. We all piled out into the poison ivy and lo, and behold. The first headstone we found had my family's name on it.

My teenage nephew and niece had been feeling a bit impatient about spending their afternoon on their auntie's wild goose chase...until they stood next to the old moss covered headstones with their family's names on them. Then it was real. Then it was worth it.

When I was a teenager, I spent summer vacation staying at the old home place in the house to the left. It looked pretty much the same way then. There was no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. The outhouse was in the back off to the left of the house. The well was at the extreme right. That little lean-to structure to the right was the kitchen. I once wrote a short story about climbing Nipple Peak. That took place on this property that same summer.

The family pictured in front of this house was my grandfather's siblings. There were thirteen of them and my grandfather was number twelve. I have traced the family line back to the very early 1700's in Virginia. They moved on every generation. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and finally Texas. They fought in the American Revolution, both sides of the Civil War, and an assortment of smaller conflicts. They were deacons, farmers, blacksmiths, school teachers, and shop keepers. They served on juries, taught Sunday School, voted, and witnessed legal documents. They were small town America.



  1. Some of these pictures look very much like some we have in our family. Much of my family was in Oklahoma. I have reproductions of very old pics of my grandmother and her sister and brother as babies. The bottom of the picture says Davis, Oklahoma Territory. I have several of these framed and sitting in a place of honor in my home.

    I know all about the old family cemetaries. My dad is buried in one of them. It was sooo out in the middle of nowhere that on the day we buried him, we given directions to a cousins house where we could have a big family dinner. We got the same kind of directions you did, Anny. We lingered by the grave so long that we lost sight of everyone else and never found our way to the dinner. I'm sure everyone thought we were blooming idiots.

    I would love to do the geneology stuff you've done, Anny. All we really have are the stories passed from one generation to the next.

  2. Fascinating...I have also done the cemetery thing - in Australia and the UK. Every time you talk about the family history I keep thinking I have to go through and scan the boxes of info Mum collected. I would hate to see all that go to waste and someone maybe a hundred years from now will want it

  3. Hi, Anny-- All those family stories of yours are really important history of the country, as well. They should be preserved.

    Go to http://www.storycorps.net and see about recording some of these. It's a project to make audio recordings of stories just like yours--you get a recording, and a copy goes to the Library of Congress.

    Family history is wonderful, and so much of it is lost forever, we owe it to those who come after to share everything we can.

  4. Thank you for the recommendation, Elissa! I will certainly check it out!

  5. great post, Anny. The search for hidden cemeteries really appeals to me, I'm still working on getting my wife excited about the idea though. :D