I consider myself pretty fortunate. When I was a young boy, I knew my grandmother on my father’s side and both grandparents on my mom’s side. Grandma Miller passed away when I was in kindergarten. Grandma Tuohy died the summer before I went into eighth grade. Grandpa Tuohy died when I was a college freshman. Some people have little to no recollection of any of their grandparents, so I am lucky.
But if we go back just one more generation, there is a void. I didn’t know any of my great-grandparents personally. My dad is able to provide a few memories of his grandfather on his dad’s side and his grandmother on his mom’s side. But his time with them was limited too, and his childhood memories are few.
My mother passed away a few years ago, and with her any memories she had of her grandparents.
I can look up names, search through photos, even talk to other older relatives that may remember a thing or two about these ancestors of mine, but it is a challenge to connect with who they were as individuals.
Knowing what characters their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were and are, I’m sure they were one-of-a-kind, each of them!
When I think about the things I’d like to know – What was it like farming the recently-drained Black Swamp in Paulding County? Did anything exciting happen on the boat trip from Germany? How did you meet your future spouse? - I have a brief twinge of loss for those stories and memories from my family history that I cannot recover. I ache for the loss of the stories and memories of my own grandparents, whom I knew and I wish my children could have known in some way beyond photos and the recollections I can provide. I have a sharp pain for the lost stories and memories of my mother, someone so influential on my life and my family, someone yet-to-be-born descendants of mine will never know personally.
One of the reasons I started Legacy Chronicles Life Stories was the determination to fight against these losses to our history and our identity. We see our society fracturing around us. We see alienation between good people from different backgrounds. We see a lack of empathy for the challenges individuals face. We see division rewarded, to the point it has become an industry in itself.
To me, a great deal of this disintegration is caused by the fact that individuals have been disconnected from their broader history. More and more young people have no deep appreciation for how their fathers and mothers have lived; they may not even have knowledge about the lives of their grandparents, let alone their great-grandparents.
Yet, if we open a window into the lives of these ancestors, we are often surprised – not only by how they lived, but how it related to the larger society. That balance can provide each of us an opportunity for reflection on what divides society today.
Some personal examples: My grandfather was, for a brief time, a police officer. I can remember him telling stories about the responsibilities entailed, always with a great deal of humor. When I consider the current issue of police shootings, the memory of his stories and the way he identified with his neighborhoods and community places today’s debate in context.
I also have heard family stories indicating some of the challenges of discrimination in America. My family history includes German and Irish immigrants, some just three to four generations back. They were often looked at as undesirables by the society of their time. They were cordoned off into their own communities, separate from the established hierarchy, including law enforcement. This, too, offers a bit of personal context to consider.
Non-English-speaking immigrants in America at the turn of the 20th century were not welcomed; tolerated was more like it. My dad, a second-generation American on his mother’s side and third-generation on his father’s, still spoke only German at home and took English as a Second Language at school. This obviously provides some family context to questions of immigration and acculturation.
I can even consider family history when we contemplate how Muslim-Americans are sometimes looked at with suspicion today. Remember, my second- and third-generation ancestors were trying to get accepted into American society over a time period that included two World Wars with Germany as the primary enemy!
Do these connections with my past provide answers to the problems in society today? No. But they do provide balm to the wounds which separate me from others with, at face value, different life experiences. By considering my family history, I see parallels which encourage empathy toward those who are struggling today.
Answers require integrity, consideration, trust, goodwill and open dialog, attributes sorely lacking in current society. My goal is to do my small part in reconnecting individuals with their past, so that we may begin reconnecting with each other. Only then will solutions begin to appear. I hope you will join me by learning more about the people in your family's history, taking in the stories and memories of family members still with us today, and passing those stories on to the generations yet to come.