It matters who came before us

Published 11:24 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where we come from; who came before us; how we arrived in this skin we identify as “me,” is interesting. The stories my grandmothers told about where they came from were stories I wanted to hear.

My grandmother on my father’s side told the most, but much of what she revealed was about her husband’s family. There were only bits and pieces about her girlhood that she shared. And even though her mother, my great-grandmother, a Moore who married a Stewart, was alive until I was 10-years-old, she never spoke about her life before she came to live with my grandmother. At least I don’t remember it if she did.

After my grandmother died, I got a scrapbook she put together when she was a young woman. In the box, there were also pictures and pieces of paper with bits of writing. These clues, together with letters my grandfather wrote her and she saved, told me about her life before she was my grandmother. I sat for hours pouring over the scraps of her story.

As for my father’s family, there was a lot of information available about where they, and ultimately I, came from. A relative put together a book tracing the Folmars in Alabama back to their roots in Germany.

My great aunt continued the list down to her generation. She also wrote stories about the family in her newspaper columns, which she collected into a book. From these I learned about the lives of my grandparents, great grandparents and even great aunts and uncles. It was fascinating.

On my mother’s side, I knew a little about my grandfather’s family, the Helms. My grandfather’s parents, my great grandparents were alive when I was small so I knew who they were, but heard nothing about my grandfather’s childhood or the ancestors that preceded his parents.

As for my mother’s mother, I don’t remember her ever talking about her life before she married. She told me about my mother’s childhood, but nothing about her own.

I never thought much about this until recently when I received a book put together by the child of my grandmother’s sister. She traced the Stephenson’s, my grandmother’s maiden name, from Liverpool, England and Glasgow, Scotland to America and then to Alabama.

All of that was interesting, but most interesting were journal excerpts where she shared stories her mother told her. Suddenly I understood that I didn’t hear about my grandmother’s early years because the memories were probably too painful.

Her own mother died at the age of 45 from cancer. At the time of her death her youngest child was only 3-years-old. Then three years later, her father, my great grandfather, died at age 53 during the great flu epidemic, leaving behind six orphaned children. Her baby sister, about 6-years-old by then, also died of the flu.

After that, life was hard, and the children were often hungry as the older siblings struggled to keep the family together. Finally, they were forced to separate, different relatives taking them in.

I thought about why this matters to me, why I’m interested in who came before me and how their lives unfolded.

As I turned the pages of the Stephenson book, looking over the names and studying the faces in the old photographs, it occurred to me that these people, all they lived through, all their experiences led to me being here.

That is true of people with the surnames I’ve heard all my life, the Stephensons, the Helms, the Folmars, the Stewarts and the Moores. These relatives contributed to me. One different choice, one person marrying someone else, one person not dying young and perhaps, I would not be alive writing these words.

Yes, who came before us matters because they are part of us, part of our stories, stories that continues to unfold through us into the future. Now that is indeed interesting.