I am so often surrounded by family history that it becomes stationary, like a piece of furniture, and I am not always emotionally engaged in it. Often, it feels like I am watching a movie of someone else’s life. I feel something… but it is not internal.
But then, when I flip through old photo albums or cards in boxes, something happens to me. It becomes personal. It is no longer a thumbnail on my iCloud. The paper rubs against my fingertips. The photos jump out at me. I have unconscious triggers that I didn’t realize existed. Is that even possible? I thought I was so well-acquainted with death and the deceased that nothing could reach me. I mean, I binge watch Forensic Files every night before I go to bed and never lose a wink of sleep!
(Side note: As a family history and genetic genealogy buff- I love that show. The investigators once said on the show, “We speak for The Dead.” I can relate to that. There is something uplifting about justice being squared away, even in the midst of a horrendous tragedy. Not all happy endings come in fluffy packaging, you know what I mean?)
But oh, no. Sometimes, seeing a photo of my grandma who died in 1993 and whom I barely had a relationship with in my nine years of life, holding me lovingly in a pouch carrier around her shoulders… it does something to me. The smile on her face. The reminder that my mom told me that she cared for me overnight once during those first few weeks of my life to help out. That she stayed up all night to feed me and care for me, even though she didn’t have to. That, in the dark and early hours of the night, she hushed my cries, and gave me comfort.
The pantyhose stockings from the early 20th century that were made before elastic was commonplace in women’s hosiery that belonged to my great grandmother, rolled up, next to her embroidery threads and handkerchiefs remind me of a time my Granny showed them to me. “Maybe you can wear these when you get married,” she said.
And I did.
Granny’s nightgown. I swear, it still smells like her, even 20 years later.
The many, many, many letters hand drawn by my little sister, Rachael. Every time she missed me, every time I was sad, every time I was sick, for every little occasion there was a reason to make me a card with markers and crayons, proclaiming her love for me was as much as my mom and dad’s, that I was the coolest big sister in the world, and that she loved me so much. I have stacks of them. How I treasure these things. How they sustain me in the rest of this life that I traverse without her, so that I never for a moment doubt that she loves me and is always with me. Always.
Watching the home videos of my husband’s family before his dad passed away, they etch out the details of him. They fill in the picture, and I understand him more. As a result, I love him more. I love his family more. I watch videos of them at the funeral, watching their sullen, tear-stained faces, and my heart wants to reach forth with tentacles of love and wrap them around all of them at once, especially my sweet husband, who was practically a boy, and so lost at the sudden death of his father. The gaping hole he left behind is suddenly so painfully obvious.
These mementos, they are reminders that death’s bite hath no sting. My loved ones are alive and well. They are with me, watching over me, and I am never alone.
But these tangible objects that carry their memory… they still poke at my heart. And the tears, how they flow. The tears, though cleansing for the soul, are draining.
But even in the midst of all of these past sorrows, there is the reminder of them. Their very presence is sensed. They are not lost. They are not gone. They are still very much apart of us.
That is why I do this. It is a necessity. It is a way to deal. I think those who have felt loss in their life find that family history resonates with them. Perhaps that is why many people don’t find an interest until later in life.
What do you think? Why do you do family history?