My grandfather taught me the importance of leaving a legacy. As we spent time together nearly every day of my life, I came to know his stories and experiences, his most joyful moments and his most compelling sorrows. I will always remember the somber look on his face as he took my hand and quietly told me, “Sister, as long as someone remembers who you were, what you stood for, you will never die.”
Those words have stayed with me through the years. It was his joy of telling me of his ancestry, his life, and thus of my own, that lead me to major in Public History Research in college. Because my grandparents lived next door to me as a child and I have raised my family in the home where members of my family have lived for five generations, I feel a sense of duty in carrying on the legacy of love, values, struggles and strengths that were passed on the me by my grandparents.
These are my mothers parents, both who lived into their 90’s. They were married 72 years. I treasure the stories they told and I recorded, the maps my grandfather and I made that showed how our community looked and how people lived well over a century ago. With those gifts along with letters, mementos and keepsakes, I feel as if I truly “know” people that died before I was born. I have photo albums overflowing with pictures (along with copies of pictures) dating back over one hundred years. Because my grandparents lived such a long life and were close by, we were able to label and identify many of the people, places and events that would have been lost to history without my interest and their willingness and joy in sharing their stories with me.
I don’t think of myself as a legacy, though I have written my thoughts and feelings most of my life. I think of myself as the keeper of a legacy, a link in a legacy that I have tried to pass down to my children and to their children. I have a double-page in one of my old albums that speaks volumes to me about the importance of knowing who we are, and having the courage to share that knowledge with others. On these pages, there is a photo of my son, myself, my mother, her father, (my grandfather), his father (my great-grandfather) and HIS father (my great-great grandfather. We all look so much alike that it takes my breath away.
My grandpa always called me, “Sister” because I looked so much like his own sisters. I can see myself sewing dresses with his sister, as I read in the 1910 census that she was listed as a “seamstress”. My aunt still wells up with tears when she sees me because I look so much like my mom, (her sister) who has now passed away. There is something magic about seeing myself in my ancestors. It is so easy to imagine myself being in that photograph of my great-great grandfathers’ cabin in Kentucky in the 1890’s.
I think of what was sacrificed so that I could be here, in this beautiful valley in the Appalachians. One of my great-great grandfathers was a prisoner of war for nearly three years. Every one of my great-great grandfathers that I have researched was a Confederate soldier during this time. It was a matter of hearth and home, and often not a matter of choice. I have photographs of most of these men and their families. We have stories of family members wounded at Gettysburg, and pictures of them. My grandmother told me stories about her grandfather and uncles going to Sutter’s Creek, California during the Gold Rush in 1849. They brought gold back around the Horn of South America, invested it in the Confederacy and subsequently lost it. We have old Bibles, letters and records to prove it. My grandmother remembered playing with cousins in trunks full of then-worthless Confederate money.
I feel compelled to share some of the more difficult stories of my heritage-the family name that took years to connect to our first ancestor in America because it was a woman, not a man. She had given birth to a child out-of-wedlock and the fact was long-buried in the annuals of history. Another family member was difficult to find because his mother had remarried when he was a young child and he was listed by his name on a ship record along with his mother and step father who had a different name. They came to Pennsylvania on one of William Penn’s ships in the 1700’s. William Penn had a lot of ships, I learned. This doesn’t mean my ancestor was even an acquaintance of Mr. Penn himself. Still, it is a fact worth preserving.
Then there are the rich or famous that we find among our ancestors. We have articles about my grandma’s cousin being Babe Ruth’s second wife. Her name was Clara, but she was called “Claire”. Claire Merritt Ruth if you want to look it up. She met him when she was dancing with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York.
The records do not end with stories of old. My father and uncles fought in World War II, some of them under the most heinous of conditions. My father and his brother were raised by a single father after their mother died when they were very young. I trudged my way through a four-year university in three years while I worked and raised two kids by myself. I lost a son at age 15, he was just playing baseball and collapsed.
Each of us has a legacy, whether we want to or not, whether we share it or not. I take pride in claiming every one who came before me, for their struggles, their triumphs and yes, even their failures. That is who I am, it is who we are as a nation, as a people. To each of you who took the time to read this lengthy, yet, in honesty, extremely condensed history of one woman’s family, I encourage you to take the time to preserve the story of who you are, where your family came from and to fill up that now-empty page with what the future holds.