Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Grandma's Flak Jacket

I received a wonderful email last week after my SCGS webinar, "Grandma's Flak Jacket: Why your children need you to do genealogy."   The email illustrates so beautifully how nourishing family history is, even when there are hard things going on in  your family.  Jo-Ann said I could share the letter with you, so here it is.   I hope it inspires you as much as it inspired me. 

Hi Janet,

I attended your webinar last night (am the one who's husband's father was one of 22 children... he's also Swedish).  I've attended probably a dozen different webinars over the past year and most have been very good, but yours was different.  I've not felt compelled to contact a presenter afterwards, but this time I have to.  Your talk touched me like none of the others have. 

I come from a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, drug addiction, sadism and lots of irrational (and unsavory) behaviours.  Thusly, there was never any closeness and no one ever talked about family history.  I am 56 years old and about 3 years ago, just on a whim, I decided to draw up my family tree.  I was stuck almost immediately on my paternal grandfather.  My Dad (now deceased) was entirely unapproachable on the subject, but he had 2 sisters.  He was on good terms with one, but estranged from the other.  We were never allowed to talk to that second sister because she was apparantly so horrible.  Trouble is, the first sister was like him and would not discuss the family, so my only choice was to approach the second one.... even though I was risking being disowned for doing so.  My whole world changed at that point. 

Not only was she not horrible, she was WONDERFUL.  She was thrilled to hear from me and shared openly.  She inspired me beyond all belief and I am eternally grateful to her for that.  She is 82 years old and I regret all those lost years.  But it is what it is and at least we can carry on from here with love instead of resentment and maybe heal some of those hurts.  I guess you could say I am now obsessed with genealogy, making it practically my full time job.  I think what drives me is that need for connectedness.  I have come to believe that I am part of something much bigger and I finally feel "a part of".  I've had some of those woo-woo moments that you talked about last night and those are very cool.  I absolutely love having made contact with previously unknown relatives and especially being able to share things with others that they did not know before.  And have put people together that otherwise may never have found each other, or even known of their existence. 

There was one defining moment, which may sound like nothing, but it impacted me.  My grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Canada.  He was following his sweetheart who had emigrated the year before.  They married, had children and when the Great Depression hit he had to travel to the other side of the country for work.  For various reasons, they never reunited.  Once he landed work he sent for her and the children, but her family interfered and prevented her from going.  Very sad.  She always kept his picture beside her bed until her dying day some 70 years later.  It breaks my heart to even tell this story.  But the haunting question is... whatever happened to him?  I have really tried hard to find him, but so far to no avail.  I did trace him to a town in 1935 and had the strangest sensation when I first saw his name on the printed page of the City Directory.  Nothing earth shattering.  Just a phone book.  But it was him.  He was real.  I felt a connectedness I had never felt before.  Was weird.

I'm still searching for him and will not give up.  I don't know what kind of man he was.  I like to believe he was good, even though he had a brother who was very much NOT good.  My Dad and his one sister hated their father their entire lives because they believe he abandoned the family, but I don't think they had all the facts.  I think they robbed themselves by not trying to learn and understand why their parents did what they did.   They preferred to carry the hurt.  So... because the trail on grandfather went cold quite quickly, I turned my attention to his wife's family and have mapped out quite a large tree.  Details have come much more easily and I've made many contacts.  Here is where I'm finding more than just the facts.  I'm learning of behaviours and personality traits and seeing very clear patterns.  It really explains so much of how and why my family (and it's branches) is the way it is.  It allows me to have more compassion.

And physical traits.... there's a whole 'nother fun subject.  My grandmother was from Scotland but her ancestors were from Ireland.  Her surname is rare, so I've been making a one-name study of it and tracing everyone I find with that name.  I have mapped 3 major branches and traced them all back to the same place and time.  I just can't prove the link, but there have been tip offs.  Like pictures of 2 men, each from a different branch.  They look so much alike they could be brothers.  Another story is I found a second or third cousin recently and he sent me a picture of the GG-grandparents we share.  It took my breath away to see that GGGF and my nephew are spitting images of each other.

This whole subject is awesome, awesome, awesome!  I would love to publish my findings some day, to pass down to future generations.  I often sit and think what life was like for my various ancestors and picture myself standing beside them in their time.  I also wonder what they would think about how hard I'm working to learn about them.  What would they have thought about someone being so interested in them as they were just living their ordinary lives.  Will someone in the future be this interested in me and what I am doing today in MY ordinary life?

Anyways, I've written much more than I intended to.  I just wanted to thank you for the webinar and confirming that I'm not the only one who approaches my research with these same thoughts and intentions.  I don't even know if I've adequately articulated what I am trying to say to you, but .... thanks.

Jo-Ann (in BC, Canada)


A. Lynch said...

Thank you for posting the letter. I have a similarly dysfunctional family story, one that I have not been ready to tell yet. This post gives me second thoughts about telling that story.

Janet Hovorka said...

You know A, I don't know if you'll see this but I've been looking back through things and I have to make a comment here. I've been learning and thinking this summer. And I've concluded that those hard dysfunctional things are exactly WHY you have to write/learn about your family history. Those are the MOST IMPORTANT parts. At some point there is someone who has overcome. And that is an example you want every one of your descendants to learn from. It is good to understand the dysfunctional and move on. I have been so inspired by the hard stories in my family history, that I don't have to be perfect, I can make mistakes, and things move on. And I can learn not to make the same mistakes again. What is it they say, Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it? It is the dysfunctional part of my history that is the most valuable to me. Good luck to you. I'm sure you'll be able to figure out how to deal with it.