Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's Past is Filed in a Manila Envelope

I sat down today to do a job long postponed. As a genealogist for more than 30 years I have amassed an enormous collection of documents, maps, pedigrees, papers, bad photocopies of old pictures and a collection of family letters dating back to 1966.

This "mess" is loosely organized by surname into brown manila envelopes, tattered and pushed to the limits of their ability. For the past several years my horde has not fit into the two foot deep file box I have lugged along with each move. I had a stack of eight or ten "extra" envelopes piled beside the file box in the cupboard.

I spent the day sorting, discarding material I'd copied (just in case) which turned out to be an unrelated line, weeding out duplicate sheets - when we gained the ability to print our own documents at home it was always "better" to print two, three or four copies rather than one. Never know when you'd need an extra family group sheet for great-uncle Jeremiah Kast and his 21 children. Best safe than sorry!

I have reams of papers other people have sent, hoping we would have a link. Sort sort sort, toss toss toss.

The most difficult were the letters. No one writes real letters any more but we used to generate a steady flow of letters. I had several large envelopes absolutely groaning with hundreds of letters. Some were written to my parents by their siblings, there was a single letter from my father-in-law written shortly before he died, and many - dozens - from my sister, brother, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, aunts, and cousins. Reports of marriages, births, deaths, the gossip of small family scandals and an occasional triumph, the march of time captured in the neat or spidery scripts of writers who are almost all now returned to the quiet well of creation from which they sprang, to quote the Tao de Ching.

Most precious, I have a two-line letter from my father, who was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known, but who was almost completely illiterate. He was severely dyslexic, but in 1910 they just said he couldn't learn. In grade four he was removed from school and put to work in the fields. I had folded this little bit of paper away years ago, and thought its power might have diminished. It has not. He struggled so hard to write those two lines. It seemed a precis of his life.

The time will come when my sons will look at all this and shake their heads, and they will probably throw the whole collection away. Some genealogists leave their neatly catalogued family collections to the local library to flesh out the county history. There is no "local" of any consequence with my ancestors. They came from the four corners of the earth, rolled through state after state like tumbleweeds, moved with the seasons, took only their appetites and (most likely) left unpaid bills behind. The descendants are prosperous these days but I remember the terror in my parent's voices as they talked of trying to raise a family through the Great Depression.

There's 500 years of history in that file box, stories and journeys which began in France and Spain, in Shropshire and Wiltshire, Germany and Holland. Some whose ancestors came across the Bering Strait 20,000 years ago and who stood on the Eastern shore and watched the newcomers arrive. Don't be rough with them boys. Even if it's just for my sake. [Edit: Older son insists he is not the beer-swilling Nascar obsessed lout portrayed by his mother in this post, but a highly sensitive soul who appreciates his rich family history. He's a good boy, as is the younger one. Maybe they'll flip a quarter for the box of documents - I'll leave it to them to decide if it's the winner or the loser who babysits mother's paperwork through the next generation. grin ]

1 comment:

7and7 said...

Don't you wonder what will happen to all those records...and in my case, the Heritage scrapbooks I'm working on...the oldest has made her own, so I guess the youngest will inherit by default. But the records, the notebooks of sloppy notes, those little tagends of paper....I can see them hitting the dumpster in some future time.