Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Embedded History

Standing in line with other fourth graders, I dropped my lunch ticket and bent over to pick it up from the floor. The fellow behind me had two newly sharpened pencils sticking out of his pocket and turned to talk to some one just as my head went down. I've had a one-eighth inch piece of lead from one of them embedded in my ear ever since.


Our grandchildren and possibly even our children don't know that story. Like my friend, grandpa Pickles, our grandchildren consider me to be ancient of days. Maybe they should. Who uses pencils and memorized trig functions in school anymore?

They don't know that I don't have much feeling in my body due to a spinal injury as a pre-teen when a car ran a red light and hit the young newspaper boy. Even if told they probably couldn't relate because they don't have any reference points in their own life experiences.

I often wonder about why my own ancestors worked in certain occupations or are listed as having certain idiosyncrasies.

My grandchildren don't realize that I am hyper-alert whenever using power tools because I watched my father slice his thumb lengthwise on a table saw when I was nine.

I've often been rewarded in my ancestral quest when opening my mind to more than dates and places. Watching for the "why's" and "what for's" is often more helpful to my research than just the raw facts.

Reading the disability statements in the Revolutionary War pension application of my ancestor gives me the hint that he probably had lead poisoning from a wound in battle slowly destroying his health. Not all fragments from the bullet were removed due to their location and the medical skills of the day.

The impact from his deteriorating health was heavily felt by his family as it became more and more difficult to manually work to support them.

A grandmother in my ancestral tree obviously died from Alzheimer's disease at a fairly young age and was said to have lost her mind in the year or two previous to her death.

I suppose family and friends referred to her as 'poor old grandma Bennett who lost her mind'. The impact on her family was substantial because of the substantial personality change and sudden dependency of the once stalwart matriarch of a large family.

Of course, our interpretation of the causes or diagnosis of problems is tenuous as we peer back through the lens looking across time, but often we can recognize symptoms and their almost certain results.

I suppose that if our ancestors looked back through the same lens at us in our day, they'd often shake their heads and using their closer to nature common sense reference points think that we are harming ourselves in our own life choices.

Either way, the time spent thinking about the events and reference points of the person in the study gives better insight into their lives, environment and personalities.

Trying to understand the conditions and lives of our ancestors make them more 'real' to us. More depth of knowledge about their stories and lives establishes a dimensional character that we can relate to and remember.

Think about your own ancestors without looking at your pedigree charts or databases first. Which individuals come to mind first? Which ones can you easily discuss when asked?

I'll bet it isn't the ones with just dates and places associated with their names. It is the ones that you've taken the time to clothe with facets of their reality and life experiences.

Don't forget to embed history and stories into an ancestors record while doing ancestral research. Even if it is only the story about a piece of pencil lead in their ear.


Thomas MacEntee said...

Great post and I agree with you. Not only report on even the tiniest fact, but sometimes I make notes with my own personal thoughts. Example: I often wonder what technology or medical treatments were available during an ancestor's lifetime or what the limitations were and how it impacted their lives. In my example - an accident which required knee surgery was relatively easy to recover from but 100 years ago someone would have been crippled for life.

Becky Wiseman said...

Lee, as Thomas said, Great Post! The process you have described is what I consider the distinguishing factor between "doing" genealogy and researching your family history. Learning the stories of your ancestors is what it is all about, at least as far as I am concerned. There's nothing worse than finding a "family history" book that is simply a list of names and dates. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we learn about ourselves.