By J. L. Starkey
“We inherit from our ancestors gifts so often taken for granted. We are links between the ages, containing past and present expectations, sacred memories and future promise.”– Edward Sellner
This week’s 52 Ancestors prompt is at the library. I thought and thought about this topic. Should I write about my Eggleston cousins, who were prolific authors in the late nineteenth century? Or how about the Irvine cousins, who also published many notable books and essays?
As I considered options, my mind kept going back to a day – and a library – that changed everything. On that fateful day, Ms. Cameron came to my seventh-grade GT class to talk about genealogy. I knew that topic wasn’t high on the list of things that would make someone popular in junior high, but I didn’t care. I was that kid, one of a chosen few who was born into this love of all things genealogical.
That day would be life-changing, I told my teenage self. I just knew it.
I wasn’t wrong.
That fateful day…
My family had its own historian in our Uncle Morris; he had traced dad’s family back to the Revolutionary War era. I grew up on stories of how Uncle Morris knew everything there was to know about dad’s family. According to my sister, he also favored Ernest Hemingway, and was a pretty cool guy.
There was a lot at stake, my young mind reminded me. Uncle Morris had done all of this work, and someone needed to learn how to add to it. That someone was me; I could feel it.
Fortunately, Ms. Cameron did not disappoint me that day. She first described her own research (she was searching for a horse thief in her family). Then she explained that genealogists used resources at libraries and archives, that they interviewed family members, and that they documented their findings. She concluded by telling us that our local library had its very own genealogy room called The McCarroll Room.
Wait…hold on a minute. Let’s back up for just a second.
Our library had an entire room devoted to family history? We had been to the library hundreds of times, but I had never been in that room. I am sure that mom was thrilled when I got home from school and informed her that I’d planned our weekend, and we were spending it at the McCarroll Room.
Mom must have known that I was a young woman on a mission, because that weekend she did, indeed, take me to the McCarroll Room. I remember the amused looks from the staff as I completed the sign-in sheet (what did they mean, 12-year-olds didn’t usually use the room?). The librarian handed me the key, and I spent a happy day conducting serious family history research.
At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that I failed to find a single document pertaining to my family. It didn’t matter that I didn’t break down a single brick wall. What mattered was that, on that day, I began to follow in the footsteps of Uncle Morris.
The class lecture and library visit sparked my interest in genealogy, and I used what Ms. Cameron had taught us as my journey continued. I painstakingly typed information request letters to places like the St. Louis Genealogical Society, all the while worried that no one would take a 12-year-old seriously. Imagine my surprise when those places responded to me!
Family interviews begin!
Buoyed by that success, I began interviewing family members, as Ms. Cameron had suggested. My first interview was with my grandmother; her memories were peppered with family legends and rumors, along with a lot of questions. She apologized for the lack of facts and resources, but said that her niece, Alberta, might be able to help. Fingers crossed, I sent an introduction to this mysterious first cousin once removed.
Letters from Alberta
As Grandma promised, Alberta was a huge help. She sent a wealth of information and memories, including copies of Uncle Morris’s research. A family history chart (which contained several brick walls) followed, along with many letters describing her research process.
Alberta and I corresponded for quite some time; she was an inspiration and a wonderful mentor. I filed those letters and documents away when I left for college. Years later, I assumed they were lost during a move.
My research continued, but oh, how I wished for those early records.
A treasured memory is found
A few years ago, while organizing old files, I noticed a green folder that looked oh-so-familiar. I looked again, not daring to hope. Could it be the family history folder? Surely not…that folder was long gone.
But…could it be?
It was! My early research was all there: letters, photos, interview notes, and those painstaking first attempts at a five-generation chart. The letters were yellowed with age and a bit brittle, but they were so welcome on that day.
One of the letters brought a tear to my eye. Alberta had taken the time to write about her memories of my dad. On a day when I just wanted to hear from dad one more time, finding her letter was like a hello from him.
Alberta’s letter is a reminder that there is so much more to genealogy than just dates and citations. As I read those words written so long ago, I was transported back in time. The excitement and wonder of that early research came rushing back, and I pictured dad as Alberta described him.
Dad passed away several years ago, but genealogy is one way to keep his memory alive. So it is with all family members. Telling our stories and our truths should be a part of things, if we want to inspire the next generation of researchers.
As family historians and genealogists, we spend a lot of time there. We break down brick walls and prove ancestral connections there. We research there, and we network there. And if we are among the lucky ones, we find our calling there…