Helen Powell Graham
Writing a memoir is like opening a window into your past life. It can also help clear the fog on windows of the past. Writing my own story in my memoir Nothing Like Normal (to be published by Black Opal Books in 2015) caused me to wonder about the tales of my parents and ancestors and what they could tell me about my heritage. While my father’s genealogy had been thoroughly researched by his brother and sister, I knew there was very little recorded about my maternal family line and actual history. This changed when I took the time to examine a faded sheathe of paper on which my great uncle had recorded a rudimentary family tree stretching as far back as 1600, tracing our ancestors who first immigrated to the colonies from England. I had been careful to make a copy of this priceless document that I finally painstakingly transposed into Ancestry.com.
Those stories had always been close yet far away, waiting to be unearthed. As I was growing up my grandmother often shared with me tantalizing snippets from her youth in the late 1800s. Since I loved “olden day” books such as Little House on the Prairie, I could easily imagine her and myself in that era. She would say “Martha, your tights remind me of the stockings I wore as a child” which would lead to how she seared her dangling legs on a tailpipe when she first rode in the back of a model T or other reminisces that wove a tangible thread from the past into my daydreams and the present.
One of the best of her stories was of my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, who was a young boy of at the end of the civil war. One day some soldiers came riding through his small town in Texas sometime after the last civil war battle at Palmito Ranch.
“Boy, hand me my rifle over there”. A blue coated soldier said after he mounted his stallion.
My great-grandfather obediently reached for the rifle which was leaning against a white picket fence. In a terrifying instant, the trigger snagged on the fence frame and blew his arm off.
My grandmother, who obviously adored her father, was proud as she told this tale and of how he grew up to become a successful lawyer in spite of his disability. She and her sister would squabble over who got to cut up his meat at the dinner table. Apparently, he even became so accustomed to just having one arm that he was sometimes unaware of it. She told me that one day he saw a man on the street with one arm and said to her, “Why, that poor man only has one arm” and then suddenly burst out laughing, “Well, I only have one arm myself!”
Like my grandmother, mom also liked to share with us anecdotes, particularly about the challenges her family faced living in the shadow of the Great Depression. Prior to this, their family of four lived an affluent life, pampered by servants in San Antonio, Texas until it all hit the fan in 1929. Her father struggled to keep the family resources intact for some years but finally, one day he came home defeated, laying a quarter on the table saying “that’s all we have”.
Grandmother was able to resurrect their finances through some smart oil investments and she continued to work throughout her life as an educator well into her 80’s, finally passing away at the age of 88.
These ancestors, their surnames and hints of the lives they led are now recorded for posterity but many births and branches of the tree still need to be filled in. In truth, there is more that is unknown than what is known. The rest is still waiting to be written.
What treasures lie in your past? It you take a go at Ancestry.com or other readily available resources, discovering it may be easier than you think.