Some say it started in 1977 with the miniseries Roots — our growing fascination with who we are and where we came from. But others say the questions have been in our bones for hundreds and thousands of years, and with the right tools and questions, curiosity high among them, the answers can be effectively mined.
Did your grandfather’s grandfather leap from steerage to a brave new world as the boat docked at Ellis Island? Is your cousin’s fiancé really related to John Alden? And what about that rusty steamer trunk in Aunt Susan’s attic, filled with sepia-toned images and Civil War-era samplers? September 27th is Ancestor Appreciation Day–perhaps a day to begin your own journey down memory lane.
Today you don’t have to be an historian as genealogy is trendy and accessible, and it’s not uncommon to use Internet websites and resources such as www.ancestry.com or www.myheritage.com to help identify objects and examine family trees. But sometimes in the quest for elusive histories, we overlook invaluable resources in the form of individuals with amazing stories to tell–right in our own backyards.
Interviewing older family members like grandparents, great grandparents, and great aunts and uncles, as well aging residents of our communities in general, can help piece together very personal family sagas and forgotten community legacies. Often these firsthand accounts produce the kind of vivid, precise details generally not found online, and ones you’ll certainly want to record and preserve for future generations.
In 1994, compelled by his heritage and Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg embarked on a leviathan quest to identify, interview, and videotape the testimonies of holocaust survivors, most by then in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Naming his venture the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Shoah being the Hebrew word for catastrophe, over five years the filmmaker succeeded in collecting and preserving nearly 52,000 interviews in 56 countries and 32 languages, now archived at the University of Southern California (USC).
Resources withstanding, most of us could not consider a project of that magnitude. But Spielberg had the right idea as survivors were beginning to die off. Very soon there would be no living eye-witnesses to this harrowing period in history.
In our own families and communities, extraordinary stories exist of war, homecomings, heroic acts, emigration, joyful births and unexpected deaths, natural disasters, and maybe some that are far less dramatic but no less deserving of a forum. Did a relative come through the Dust Bowl and later form a thriving farm cooperative in California? Maybe the person whose family has owned the hardware store down the street for 75 years has something to share about its early days–and the people who built it. Could it be that you are here only because your great-great grandmother and grandfather were courageous enough to elope? And considering the demographic at the average retirement home, along with the length of time most residents have lived in the surrounding towns or cities, history abounds and surely many would feel privileged to share it for posterity. In fact valued older citizens with rich and varied stories to tell can help preserve entire communities.
For Topeka, Kansas resident John Haslip, the decision to spend time over the course of a few months interviewing and recording an elderly uncle paid off dearly when he learned the family was descended from a Western legend. A lawman by profession, Haslip’s forbearer had been celebrated by his community and in fact in several communities as he defended them over 25 years from all manner of gangs, bandits, bank robbers, and other criminals.
“I guess the story had been all but forgotten,” Haslip said, noting his uncle, a former rancher, had always been rather laconic, not unlike his predecessors. “But when we started talking, and it eventually all came out, I really had something–or someone–to be proud of, in addition to much gratitude for my uncle, of course.”
Whatever their merits, struggles, stories, and achievements, Ancestor Appreciation Day is a reminder to get in touch with members of our past and honor those individuals whose chosen paths made our lives possible. And while we’re at it, making sure our own character is in order isn’t such a bad thing. Who knows–in 100 or 200 years, our descendants may come knocking to see what we were up to!