Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Stories

Visiting the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau with my Dad's parents. I now am older than they were then.
As more years of our lives stretch out behind than we are likely to enjoy ahead, often the past becomes more interesting to us. I recall as a kid hearing older folks talking a lot about things that had happened before I was born. I was more interested in history than the average kid, but like most children, I naturally thought more about the moment, tomorrow, or maybe out as far as next summer's vacation than about what had happened long ago.

Now I find myself in the older generation's shoes. My parents are gone. I am older at this point than my grandparents were when the photo above was taken. The remainder of my life life looms like the visible portion of the iceberg, with a larger percentage -- experiences, events, the influence of ancestors --hidden below the surface, yet the critical ballast that steadies my course.

I have been thinking a lot about the past this year. My father's death one year ago and my mother's two years before that have prompted a lot of reminiscences with friends and family, and lately lost snippets of growing up in my family have been passing through my mind. I didn't really analyze it until I was back Mérida and had time to ponder, but on a trip north that I made last year, I was steeped entirely the past.

Graves of some ancestors on the old family farm in Virginia

My great-great grandfather
I visited my cousin Kim in Washington, D.C. She's done extensive family research, and we love to talk together about family history. One day we drove into Virginia, where my mother's family arrived from England in the 1600's. That was the start of a fascinating and humbling experience, exploring places where predecessors of mine had lived and died, and walking land that was in the family for generations. We met a distant cousin who still owns some of the family farmland, and she directed us toward a large, old tree in a field, under which we found the graves of several relatives, including my great-great grandfather, who lived to be nearly 100 and fought for the losing side in the Civil War. To be honest, there is a part of my heritage there which I do not deny, but of which I am not proud.

As a teenager, my grandmother worked in this factory
We visited the nearby country church where many of the family were baptized, married and laid to rest. We spent time exploring the town where the generations before my mother's had lived and struggled to keep the family together amidst grueling work, poverty, and violence which took two family members' lives and prompted the survivors eventually to escape by moving up to Baltimore, where my mother was later born.

I realized that in exploring this area I was visiting a painful past that my mother's family had mostly left behind, and which Mom never talked much about. And I have begun to understand some of the reasons why.

I stopped near Baltimore to visit my aunt and uncle, Kim's parents. They live still in the house they did when I was a child. Visiting there I sleep in my great-grandmother's bed and we eat off of grandmother's dishes, which my aunt brings out for the occasion. We spend hours poring over old pictures and talking about our lives and things that happened long ago.

On the same whirlwind trip I also visited with an old friend and co-worker in Washington, D.C., and attended my 40th high school class reunion. On these occasions as well, most of what we talked about was things that happened a long time ago. Once the conversations warmed up, sitting in a roomful of classmates I hadn't seen in forty years I felt strangely at home. I get along much better now with many of those people than I did back then. Time and maturity clear away the trivial and temper passions. And reminiscing about the best football games, griping about teachers, laughing and crying about friends who have passed away, finding out finally who was the kid who streaked across the student parking lot one morning my senior year, stuff like that, certainly gave us a lot to talk about.

And this was the central theme: through all of my trip, I told and listened to stories. Human beings love stories. Stories unite us. With the mellowing passage of time these stories become interesting and even entertaining -- even the events that made life difficult. In the retelling, we find meaning in the the bad and celebrate the good. This and the practice of telling makes the stories better. Stories of hardship and sadness become tales of survival, and help explain who we are now.

Of course my realizations here are not news, but I've been seeing it lately for myself. I think that this blog will evolve a bit. I believe I will start telling more of the stories.


Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson