By J. L. Starkey
“So long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.“– Shirley Jackson
“I’m going do that 52 Ancestors thing that everyone is talking about,” I told my husband. “When mom sent the Christmas check, she wondered if I could use it for genealogy, didn’t she? This is perfect…I’ll start a blog and put the money toward research and writing expenses.”
My husband knew this day was coming, and he had been preparing for it. A few hours later, I found a list of potential website names on top of a pile of genealogy paperwork. By that evening, jacquelineage.com was a reality, and I resolved that 2019 would be the year I wrote it all down.
On January 6, 2019, I published my first post to coincide with that week’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks prompt. In the weeks that followed, readers learned about Bachelor Uncle George O’Neill’s matchmaking, Henry Hansen’s troubles At the Courthouse, and Carrie Olson Muehleisen’s true Love. The work was challenging and fun, and I promised myself that this was one resolution I was going to keep.
That said, sticking to the resolution hasn’t always been easy. As I write this final post for 2019, I’m struggling with this week’s prompt…really struggling.
It’s you. That’s the prompt. You.
Me? But 52 Ancestors is supposed to be about other people, not me! It’s supposed to be about ancestors. You know…the strong ones, the zany ones, the talented ones. Not me.
“We need to remember that we are a part of our own family history,” Amy Johnson Crow wrote. “What do you want future generations to know about you?”
It’s a difficult question to answer. At the end of one of the most challenging years of my life, what do I want my descendants to know about me?
I thought back to where it all began, and suddenly, I saw the big picture.
The Start of Things
“Your mom wants you to call her,” my husband was worried when he woke me in the late evening hours of August 20, 2018. My mom had called him after I didn’t answer my phone, and she wanted me to call back immediately.
Something wasn’t right; I knew it from the tone of mom’s voice as she began telling me the horrible news. My sister’s husband had a heart attack at work that day, and –
As mom spoke, my mind filled in the blanks. “My sister is at the hospital with him,” I told myself. “That’s why she’s not the one telling me this news. They probably went to that hospital with the really good cardiac care, which means he’s going to be fine. That’s what it is…she’s at the hospital. Tomorrow, I’ll drive up there to help out, and…”
But mom hadn’t finished her sentence yet.
“- and he…passed away.”
Four words. Four little words, and everything changed. Those words still replay in my head at times, and some days, I still don’t believe them.
But fate wasn’t finished with us yet. Just one month after we returned home from the funeral, my beloved rescue dog Lucky passed away. When I brought him to the vet on that final, horrible morning, we were greeted by the same technician who arranged his emergency boarding with such care and compassion one month earlier. We both struggled to find the right words to say, until finally, she simply gave me a hug and cried with me as we said goodbye to the best dog ever.
We knew this day was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. Lucky’s kidneys had been failing for years, and he often needed a midnight walk (or three) as his condition worsened. I had trouble getting back to sleep after those wake-up calls, so I started writing to pass the time.
By the summer of 2018, a pattern was established. It didn’t matter what was happening at home or in the world, because for a few precious hours I could “write it away,” as author Shirley Jackson once said. Mornings became my favorite time of day, and I looked forward to writing about my ancestors while Lucky lay contentedly at my feet. My family was safe, secure, and whole, and life was good.
But now, nothing was safe or secure anymore. My brother-in-law was gone, my sister was hurting, the family was grieving, and Lucky wasn’t laying at my feet anymore. Everything felt so…wrong.
We tried to find a new normal, but life is cruel sometimes. A few weeks after Lucky’s death, my father-in-law’s health took a turn for the worse. By December, he was making plans to enter hospice care. My heart broke all over again, this time for my husband, son, and in-laws.
Christmas was coming, but no one felt like celebrating. Mom sent a check instead of a gift, saying that maybe I could treat myself to something genealogy-related in the challenging months ahead.
Through it all, writing was my escape from a very sad reality. When I was in “the zone,” I was transported to a place where I saw the world through my ancestors’ eyes. It was a good place to be, because some of those ancestors were pretty darn amazing. Talented, intelligent, and fearless, they found the good things in life, regardless of the challenges they faced.
As I wrote, I wondered if sharing my ancestors’ stories would help others who were facing similar challenges. Would people be inspired by the amazing lives my ancestors lived? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to find out.
My mind was made up. I was going to do this, but I really needed a topic to get started.
Actually, I needed 52 topics.
Coming Full Circle
My ancestors were a source of strength and comfort during this challenging year, and every week, I looked forward to sharing another 52 Ancestors post. Each time I clicked the “publish” button, another story was told, and another ancestor was memorialized.
In between those times, 2019 was a year filled with sadness, worry, and finally (thank goodness), hope. In January, my husband said what he thought was a final goodbye to his father, and we struggled to come to terms with so much loss in such a short time.
But then, everything changed.
Hospice would have to wait, at least according to my father-in-law. His survival chances were fifty-fifty at best, but he decided to play those odds when he underwent lifesaving LVAD implantation surgery. He faced a long recovery and countless setbacks, but in the end, he made the right choice. In April, he was released to home, and today, he is considered an LVAD success story.
Sometimes, life surprises us, doesn’t it?
I later learned that to pass some of the long hours at the hospital, my mother-in-law read my 52 Ancestors posts. As she awaited updates from the doctor, the much-married O’Neill family kept her amused, and my Deadwood third-great-grandfather told her his amazing story of life and death in the old west. Their stories provided her with an escape from reality, and I was humbled to learn that my resolution to write it all down made that possible.
Genealogy isn’t just about names and dates. Sometimes, our ancestors’ stories serve a bigger purpose than that…and sometimes, a simple resolution can have amazing results.
Did I keep my resolution for the entire year? When I click “publish” today, the answer is yes! But I still haven’t answered that final question, have I?
What do I want future generations to know about me?
The answer is simple. I hope that my descendants are inspired by the stories of their ancestors. If a descendant asks about the author of those stories, I hope that someone will explain how it all started way back in 2019 with an idea…and 52 prompts.
“Your great-great-great-grandmother was the author of those stories” the descendant might say. “We call her the ancestor who wrote it all down.”
See you in 2020!