Discovering the Legacy of Character Through Your Family History Research
When I began researching my family history, I did so because of a rumor. The rumor was that my great grandfather married an Indian woman and it caused a split in the family. Having always been drawn to American Indian cultures, I wanted to know for sure because I had always felt that my passion for this beautiful culture was - well, genetic.
If you've ever worked a jigsaw puzzle, then you know that family research is very similar. Sometimes you can complete the border of a puzzle very quickly but the inside is a different story. You can spend days looking for two pieces that fit together. So it is with family research. Many years after I began researching my family, I still felt that I had most of the border of the puzzle but the real meat of the family was still missing. Sometimes it felt like the harder I tried, the less I discovered. I would tell myself to be patient; that this really was just a process, and that if I kept going, I would soon discover the next missing piece.
Character Is Rooted In History
I've been thinking a lot about history lately. It never interested me before. In fact, I hated the study of history when I was in school. I never could understand why it mattered or why anyone would want to spend time talking about old stuff when the world was moving forward. My family research has changed my attitude - totally. A few days ago I was digging through my data and I thought about my great grandmother, who wore herself out having babies. She had fifteen children before she was 36 years old. She died in 1912 when she was 37 and pregnant with number sixteen. I wondered how she fed fifteen children during those lean years. Again, it was 1912 and our family was poor. They were tenant farmers, which means they farmed on rental property because they couldn't afford their own. Women didn't work and the men were farmers. Sure, some of the men were blacksmiths or carpenters but still, they didn't make a lot of money. How did you feed and clothe fifteen growing children? And, where did they all sleep? How on earth do you get them to school? Oh how I wish I could talk to my great grandmother and ask her these questions. Can you imagine the stories she would tell me?
The men of my family have amazed me with their strength and courage. My second great grandfather fought in the Civil War. So did most of his brothers, uncles, and cousins. I recently stumbled across a history of the 38th Virginia Infantry. It was there in Company F, that my second great grandfather served from 1861 until 1864. I read about the battles, the travel from town to town on trains and on foot, the harsh weather and lack of shelter. How did they push forward, never knowing what they would face when they arrived at the next battler. I read about the lack of food and the disease that stole the lives of so many young men. I read about the kindness of strangers, about the women who walked across battlefields strewn with the bodies of the dead and dying soldiers. There were countless stories of women who sat and held the hand of young men who were dying far, far from home. Men they didn't know. I'm sure they hoped someone would be so kind to the soldier they had said goodbye to as he marched off to war.
When I think about the hardships my ancestors endured, I find myself feeling very grateful for their sacrifices. I am awed by their bravery and their commitment to their family and their country. And I wonder how the generations to come will feel about my generation. What is the legacy we are leaving our children? Will they learn anything from the mistakes we made or the actions we took? Are we doing anything to make their world a better place?
After all my years of research, I am proud of the research I have done. No one in my family is famous or wealthy but they were people of integrity. They were brave and resourceful and loyal and I think that makes me more proud than if they reached some level of celebrity or wealth. I can't imagine the struggles they endured or the fear they must have faced. Their stories have become a part of me and will be shared with the next generation and hopefully with every generation to come. This, is the reward for all the time spent trying to find those missing pieces of the puzzle.
The Courage to Keep Digging Up Roots
I want to believe that this crazy hobby of mine will be meaningful to someone when I'm gone. I hope that someone in the family will pick up where I leave off and carry on the work I started. I am learning that collecting the stories is just as important as collecting the dates and places where important events took place in the lives of my ancestors. In fact, it may really be the only thing that matters. Because someone else took the time to tell the story of the soldiers on the battlefield in 1861, I have found compassion and pride. Had someone not remembered the pregnancy that died with the death of my great grandmother, I would not have felt sadness. Most likely I would have perceived my grandmother as someone whose body was very fertile but whose mind was not very bright. Seriously, why would anyone continue to have babies when they couldn't even afford to buy their own farm?
This process of research has taught me that not only was my family strong and rich in character, but they were survivors who had a sense of humor, and, that they took care of each other. It is their legacy to me and their stories, however small and insignificant they seem, have changed me. And for that, I am grateful and inspired to keep digging for that elusive piece of the puzzle.
© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.
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