Friday, October 7, 2022

Family History: An Brief Ethnography


Tracking family history can be tricky. Most of it is oral and the familiar parts get told so often that they become more than familiar, they become rote. That sense of over-familiarity can cause those stories to seem less important, less remarkable. At the same time, the character of these stories are connected to their story-tellers. The moments around the dinner table or standing around the kitchen after cleaning up from a birthday party or Christmas dinner when some moment triggers a story. These are rarely recorded but these stories are, for better or worse, fundamental to the way we consider and remember our family histories.

For example, when my kids ask “what am I”, meaning what nationality I tell them we’re Scottish but with an Irish last name. No one is quite sure how that happened. There are vague stories of horse traders or maybe even horse thieves but nothing for certain. The one thing I do know for certain is that I’ve seen my last name is carved into the wall at Ellis Island, the result of my paternal great-grandfather passing through on his way to New Jersey.  My paternal grandmother, Jemima, was born in the US but traveled back and forth to Ireland in the 1940s, not the best time for transatlantic boat voyages. According to family lore, she was on the Lusitania’s penultimate voyage on one of these trips. My grandfather, Frank, would meet my grandmother some time in their late teens as they were both living in Cliffwood Beach, NJ. They would get married, raise three boys, and my grandfather would work for UPS until retirement. Nominally Catholic they would take my father’s conversion to evangelical Christianity quite hard.

On the other hand, my wife’s paternal grandmother, Gladys, was raised on a farm in Alberta, Canada. She rode a horse to school, shipped gophers on hand-made boats down the creek, and smoked a corncob pipe. One of our favorite family photos of Gram is a black and white shot of her leaning against a rail fence, smartly dressed, with a rifle in her right hand and the corn cob pipe in the other. She made it through eighth grade before leaving school to help with the family farm. Gram left Canada at 17 as the tour nanny to the children of a country and western singer named Wilf Carter, who is best known as the “father of Canadian country music.” It was on one of Carter’s tours of the states that Gram met Bob, a 18 year New Jersey boy with a 10th grade education. Bob would work for years in the telecom industry starting as a linemen for New York Telephone, staying with the company as it was acquired by Bell Telephone and later again by AT&T. However Grandad, in family history, was best known for his love of farming. For many years he maintained 30 acres of corn, regularly sowing, planting, and reaping well into his 70s. To the distinct chagrin of my father-in-law who went gray very early on, Grandad retained a full head of black hair for years. This caused people to ask, when they were out together, if the two men were brothers.

I possess significantly more stories about my wife’s paternal grandparents, Gladys and Bob, known as Grammie and Grandad, for several reasons. First, they both invested time in their kids and grandkids. For many years, they hosted birthday parties, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. They were generous with their time, food, attention and even money. They were both people of deep Christian faith who passed that on to my father-in-law. I had privilege of knowing Glady and Bob for about eighteen years and spent, frankly, more time with them than my own grandparents because of their investment in their family. My kids got to spend quality time with their great grandparents. We also walked together through Grandad’s brain cancer in 2017. The week before Gram died in 2020 we spent an hour together, talking, telling stories, and telling her we loved her. Her favorite thing was to have grandkids on her lap so of course the last pictures of us together was with our youngest on her lap.

These are not historical moments. However they are deeply impactful to the lives and practices of how we understand and practice family. The example of my paternal grandparents in their investment into the lives of their children, their grand kids and great-grand kids, is an important historical touchstone to the way the family sees itself and holds itself together.

After Gram died in 2020, one of the deepest senses of loss was selling their house because that was the site of family gatherings. However my sister-in-law, Kelly, and her husband Chris, moved into a manse, close by to my in-laws that featured a wide grassy expanse with plenty of room for everyone. While we live in multiple states, we still regularly gather together to write the next chapters of our family’s history.