What does it mean to be the keeper of stories?
I've been musing this one over for the past week or so, thinking about modern society and the arguable lack of myth makers and keepers today. Fear not -- I am not criticizing the film industry or the world's gifted novelists--I'm too much movie addict and a voracious reader to do that--but I have been wondering lately who keeps our society's stories. Who is keeping one's family's stories?
This hit me recently because I have just one grandparent left and, undoubtedly, she is the keeper of my family's history. When she goes, the family library goes with her, so to speak. This realization has made me a bit panicky because I am realizing just how much I don't know about my family's roots. For example, how did they come to America? And when? How old were they and what stories did they carry with them? What stories did they create during their lives? How did they die? It's overwhelming.
On my dad's very Irish side of the family, we were lucky that my Grandda--now passed--loved spinning yarns. He had an elephant's memory and wove tales that always held me captivated -- about our ancestor's brave move from Ireland to America...about the horse he used to race for money once settled in country...about helping slaves escape from Virginia into Ohio. For emphasis, Grandda would usually pull out my great-great-great grandfather's shillelagh (Irish walking stick that Himself had carved in the 19th century) to show us the notches he made to record his gambling escapades. Apparently, he won rather often!
I appreciated the stories when I heard them but it was only when I was older that I wished I had the foresight to probe more deeply into what my Grandda and other relatives were offering.
Perhaps it's this realization that has compelled me to begin researching my family history -- all four lines. Luckily, the English line has been well-documented by older relatives and it's fascinating work to go back into records so as to fill in the blanks. Even better is linking my tree with other family trees where appropriate. Apparently, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather came to this country in 1651 and settled in the Boston area. Whoa! I'm buzzing with questions about those individuals, wondering if any were caught up in the Salem witch trial hysteria or later helped with the Revolutionary War. These are current unknowns but I'm digging.
On my mother's side the immigration is more recent and surprisingly tricky. It's hard trying to figure out how immigration officers would have recorded those Eastern European names that possessed more consonants than vowels. Recently, I made a discovery that answered years of unanswered questions for I had finally found my great grandmother's immigration record. My grandmother routinely said that her mother never liked to talk about her voyage or about the Old Country because it was so sad. And she died when my grandmother was just 13, so there wasn't much opportunity to record details of her trip. But, over the weekend, voila! I finally found her immigration record and I felt such giddiness because as I read the details of her arrival, I felt myself filling up with her story. I felt whole.
So, I offer all of this--these stories--to all of you. What I have found in my own experience of digging into my family's dirt is that it has been deeply nourishing and satisfying. I have a better sense of where I come from and who I might look like and, while these are not necessary things to possess in life, it makes me feel less alone in the mass of people around me. I feel like I have generations behind me and because I can name them, they feel more real to me.
I now know that I have become the keeper of my family's history. The mantle has been passed to me and I'm recording furiously. What might you find in your own family's history? And who stokes the flames of your ancestors in this modern society? My hope is that someone is because it's what binds us to each other and to our collective past.