history: lost and found
i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).
it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.
i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.
on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)
by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.
there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.
all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.
i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.
i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.
and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.
has anyone gathered the stories at your house?
We are one family. I love it
Andrea Lavin Solow
Is this harsh for Blair? His dad is so recently gone …
Andrea Lavin Solow
i hope not. and since i was poking around all day, while he was at work, it was all a part of my day eclipsed. i was lost in the threads of family i’d never imagined……it takes hours to track just one thread. the few things i asked him about, he was perfectly lovely answering. and, sadly, yesterday he was mostly distracted by news about the tribune’s new majority shareholder…..
Oh Barbie !! That pic of you four has me in tears!!! I’ve read but will go back and reread!!! I always loved you guys so much!!! I loved coming over and being with you all!!! Sooo I can’t tell you enough to gather the stories!!! I had found someone to gather moms wonderful stories !! MB said ohhh we don’t need that person we can do it in the Internet , silly to have that person take stories and print and bind for the family!! The stories were never gathered and mom passed away 6 months later and those beautiful stories and the details are gone !! So gather and print and even bind so the likes of Will, Teddie, Ella and Milo can easily open the stories and read them!!! Maybe one set of details and another of stories !!!! Yes, you must do this!!! Going back to look at that cute pic again!! And reread your post!!! Flew back to Canada last night!! Heading to lake Louise now!! Will chat this next week!! ️Xoxo
Sent from my iPhone
that picture had me in almost tears, and the one of sweet bri had me in CERTAIN tears, rolling-down-the-cheek tears. i always always love hearing from you, my beloved dream maker from so long ago. the stories gathered here are for the boys, and the ones already bound, and another set soon to be bound. i should fly to lake louise, which i’ve never seen, so the two of us could tell stories for days…..that would be so good for my soul. xoxoxo love you, sweet M.
Ah, you have found the wonders of Ancestry. Tho I have done much myself, I have never seen it written about in such a glorious way as you did, of course! And to have part of it done by someone else already is even better. Take down oral and written histories of all the older people in your family and even your friends. Your ancestry gives you a sense of belonging to something bigger, roots that go far deeper than you imagined and knowing there is continuity even in death. Enjoy!
not one bit surprised that you’ve discovered all this long ago. perhaps it’s the tug of our irish cords? i have so many scraps of story of elders. i do need to put them all in one bound place. just for family treasure.
Beautiful photos, story , mission and quest!
As fior Apollina, it would have fit you well. I can just see you busting in to a CMH room in your green fair isle sweater “I’m Apollina and I”ll be your nurse”. Althogh I imagine you might well have been called Polly, if not by then, then there for sure! xoxo
you totally crack me up! i LOVE the name polly, and it’s the sort of name i must have wished for. i once wrote the libretto for a children’s opera, it was called, “Polly and the Dinosaurs.” i didn’t pick the name (it was given to me by the patron), but it is making me smile now…..
Years ago, after my father-in-law had retired, he went out and bought a copy machine. All the family–his five sons and daughters-in-law silently chuckled. We knew he loved going to Office Max, but we had no idea what he had in mind when he bought the copy machine. Then, about a year later, each of his sons received a red plastic three-ring binder with the copies of letters Dad had sent home to his mother and father when he was serving in World War II.
Dad was an only child and the sole support of his family at the time (his father was ill). The letters were all about this wonderful girl he’d met and how he was going to propose to her. His parents wrote back, asking him to wait. They must have been anxious about what would happen to them. But, in several letters, he tried to reassure them that all would be well, but no one was going to keep him from proposing to Marie.
The letters were eye-opening. My son looked through the letters once or twice as a youngster. Every few years, he would go back and peruse them again. Now, out of college and working, he usually makes his way to that binder, a few times a year when he visits home.
I’ll always be grateful to my father-in-law that he left us this gift of his stories.The best part was that they were letters written in his own words.
i love this. if only we had all gathered all the stories, the love letters, the scribbled notes. i’ve spent years searching for one long letter, type-written, that my dad left under my pillow. i can’t believe it’s lost…i love, too, that your son returns to the binder a few times a year.
Dearest, your father’s letter may turn up at just the time when you need it. Maybe it is not lost, just hiding.
I’ve heard it said that each time someone dies, a library burns to the ground, and it’s true. I wishwishwish I knew the stories now. I’ve helped a few people record theirs … it is my heart’s favorite work, and I wish I could do it every day. Everyone’s story is precious and deserves, needs, to be heard. It’s so wonderful that you tell your stories … not just for your lovies, but for us, too. Love you.
wow. i have never heard that bit of wisdom — so true. another dear friend of mine, too, was gathering stories at a senior center. it makes me think — maybe that’s the angel dust behind all this — that i should spend a few hours a week in the sacred art of gathering other people’s stories. maybe first i should make sure i’ve gathered all from the ones whose stories i inherit. i heard there is a great list of questions, to prompt such story gathering, at StoryCorps. i think it is an effort that started around thanksgiving. i should go look……
I hate textbook history, but I love people history. Years ago while visiting Colonial Jamestown, I walked the ancient cemetery there. Reading the tombstones was like a history lesson in itself – husbands and wives, children, beloved wives and mothers gone too soon – just as you described. I found myself fascinated, even wondering about their lives and how they met their ultimate end.
My aunt researched our genealogy on my father’s side a few years ago and unearthed some startling facts about our family. We always thought we were Hungarian – turns out, we’ve got quite a bit of Italian in our blood. No wonder I’m always hungry for Italian food (deliberate pun there).
Reading this, I’m struck with the notion that many families, no matter where they began, know very little about their roots. A few clicks can open a window so they peek into the past and their heritage, grand or humble.
The Mahany Clan carries on … xoxo
oh, sweetheart. first, i’m so touched that you would come to the table amid a tough time at your house. bless you. i did smile quite deeply when i got to the part about you having a good bit of italian — i can so see that. big heart, zest for life. i love your thoughts and your line, “a few clicks can open a window….” and then, “grand or humble.”
sending love, my dear italian hungarian wonderful friend. xoxox
your heart is huge, dear one. xox
Oh my, these photos are priceless, simply priceless. What a tender privilege it is to see this sweet photo of you with your beloved papa. I love his face… Along with dear Nan, I hope your long-lost letter from him will resurface.
Love that you’ve been delving into your ancestry! Love, too, that Barbara is a name with a long family history, as well as Apollonia!
My paternal great-grandfather did exhaustive research and in 1906 published a wonderful little book about our family history, which he traced back to 1738 –without the help of modern technology and Ancestry.com, mind you, but through personal visits and copious letter-writing! He and my grandfather each had a reputation for driving miles and miles out of their way to stop in to visit a distant relative. One of the happiest days in my life was a few years ago, when our clan gathered in St. Louis to celebrate the 90th birthday of my dear first cousin, once removed. There must have been fifty or more of us, and I felt safe in the arms of my family. I met cousins I’d never seen before, and it was a delight! (Much more to tell you about this, sometime.)
I hope you’ll continue to research your roots and report your findings here from time to time. I agree that it’s of vital importance to write stories down before they’re lost to the ages… xoxo
oh, dear! that is the PUREST way to discover family history — through letters penned and mailed across miles and years. i wish i wish i had those. but sadly — as of now — i don’t. maybe i will add them to my wish list, for letters to surface.
your gathering in st. louis sounds heavenly. “safe in the arms of my family.” i know what you mean. i felt that way, even though it was only through wisps of name and date, with so much lost in the hyphen between birth and death…..
I am most fortunate to have sisters who researched my family tree. My big sis did my mama’s side back to Ireland and my baby sis did my papa’s side back to Scotland. (Maybe we’re related, bam…my Irish great-grandmama, known as Franta by her grandbabies, was a Shannon. Elizabeth Shannon McGorry.) And then on John’s side, his dad did tons of genealogical research way back when. Now John’s distant cousin out in San Francisco has caught the ancestry.com bug and wants to come on out here to our humble abode to help John organize his dad’s genealogy files. (Pop was a passionate researcher, but he wasn’t very passionate about organization.) Mapping out the family tree is such a powerful way to feel connected to past generations and to each other.
Wouldn’t that be crazy wild wonderful if we were related? Any Kentucky in your Shannons?