Almost exactly a year ago, my father had a series of strokes that left him physically incapacitated and confined to a hospital bed at home. He had been hard of hearing for years as the result of multiple ear infections and lanced eardrums when he was a child in the 1930s. He lost his sense of taste and smell a few years ago as the result of a virus (at least, that was the doctor’s best guess), and his vision, which had never been fantastic, had deteriorated over the last year or two and worsened rapidly after the strokes.
In spite of all that, though, his mind was still sharp and remained that way until just before he died last November. He had always been able to answer any question I asked about his family and his childhood, and with his older brother and sister both long dead, it’s only now sinking in that there isn’t anyone left who remembers those stories anymore. I still have so many questions! I wish I’d been able to go sit with Dad sometime in his last few months and just listen to him talk, but that opportunity and all of those memories are gone.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Ancestry.com over the past few years tracing our family history. I’ve learned a lot, like the fact that we had ancestors on every side of the Salem Witch Trials — one great-grandfather (Deacon Edward Putnam) examined and testified to the persecution of his niece, Ann Putnam, and the other girls; another (Benjamin Abbott) accused his neighbor, Martha Carrier, of witchcraft (and saw her hanged); and one great-grandmother (Mary Ireson) was accused herself and found guilty (partially on the testimony of Edward Putnam!), but fortunately her conviction happened so late in the trials that she wasn’t executed before the whole thing was finally brought to a halt.
The “interesting” ancestors are always the ones that exist as more than a name and set of dates in the family tree. They’re the ones who have stories recorded and passed down, whether in the history books or in their own hand. We have a four-page letter written by my great-great-grandfather, Joshua, from Denver back to his son in Maine in 1891. No one knows what Joshua, a sailmaker by trade, was doing in Denver, but he writes about missing his wife and children, about all the happenings out there (where a boy had recently fallen off the roof of a seven-story building and landed on a horse, breaking his leg and fatally injuring the horse), about his opinion of “Western women” (which boils down to the fact that you wouldn’t want to be seen with one of them in polite New England society!), and a tantalizing bit about his resentment towards his cousin, Albert, whose treatment of Joshua was somehow responsible for his move to the West. Joshua wasn’t famous by any standard — I haven’t even been able to find out when he died or if he’s buried in Maine or Denver — but just having that glimpse into his life and personality makes him so fascinating.
So here’s the point: write things down! Write about how you met your spouse. Write about your memories from childhood. Write about your college years and what you most enjoyed studying. Write about funny things your children say and do. Write about your pets and their quirks. Write about your family traditions and your vacations. Write about weddings and funerals and maybe a scandal or two. Write about stories your parents and grandparents told you. If they’re still alive, sit down with them and ask them to tell you all of these things about their own lives, including the stories their grandparents told them! Capture as much as you can in the most permanent form possible. And please, if Cousin Albert does you wrong and permanently alters your life story, for the love of all that’s high and holy, write it down!
My mom remembers riding on a horse-drawn sleigh with her grandfather to retrieve sap buckets from his maple trees in 1940s rural Pennsylvania. My oldest son, meanwhile, can’t conceive of a world in which phones were permanently connected to the wall and Netflix didn’t exist. He’s convinced I’m pulling his leg when I tell him that I didn’t have my first cell phone until I was in college, and that when I did get one, all I could do with it was make phone calls. So much has changed in only two generations.
My paternal grandfather was born in 1893 and died in 1986 when I was five years old. I know that he served in France in World War I, I know he had a sister named Marjory who died young, and I know I inherited my freckles and the reddish tint in my hair from him, but for the most part, his life is a mystery. Again, two generations, and think of how different his world was from mine!
My grandparents and their children. My father is the little boy in the middle.
Two generations from now, life will probably have radically changed again. A few generations after that, you and I could be just another set of flat, impersonal names and dates to our descendants. But there will still be people like me who want to know where they’ve come from and who some of the thousands of people were who had a part in creating them. You could be one of the ones who comes to life for them.
Write things down. They’ll thank you for it.