Friday, January 2, 2009

How Did You Get Here?

There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.
Russian Proverb

Is it rude to look at photos in someone's home when they're out there on display? I think if you care enough to put the pictures out, you care enough that someone, even a relative stranger, looks at them.

I love the photos from ages past that link us to our histories. While at one of my visits on New Year's Eve, the woman of the house showed me the pictures of her father, his siblings and their mother from over a hundred years ago. The family was from the deep south. Most of the children in the photo, and there were eight of them, didn't have shoes on their feet because they couldn't afford them. The woman's grandmother had been born a slave. Every child she told me, had a different father and it wasn't by choice. Even though slavery had ended, the treatment these people endured had not. The photo took my breath away, but not as much as the story did. That was a terrible time in the history of our country. This woman told me she is not resentful at all, but if she were, I wouldn't blame her. She considers herself as much a woman of Irish heritage as she is African American.  She is proud of her roots.

I met some people this week who'd immigrated to this country from Russia in the mid 90s. They had no family pictures hanging on their walls and none adorning tables.  I always look.  They had beautiful modern art-but nothing to remind them of the past that was out for all to see. I don't know why. You'd think since I'm nosy, I'd have asked.  I didn't ask why they came here because for most immigrants, the story is the same: for a better life.  Even though this house outwardly showed little of their heritage, the proof that they cling to tradition in that home was strong-beginning with complete devotion to their aging loved ones.  For whatever reason, I bonded with this family.  They kept apologizing for their broken English and I kept telling them their English was better than my Russian.  Though most starts of care are fairly somber, this one wasn't.  They were very accepting of what the outcome would eventually be and quite relaxed about it all.  I will tell you, that was the most fun I've had at a start of care and I was sorry to leave their home to go out in the snow and cold. I was taught a few Russian words, hugged, plied with chocolate and offers of food, vodka and champagne. If it had been the end of my shift, I'd have taken the vodka. I'm not a complete fool, I accepted the chocolate.

My cousin sent this photo of my own grandparents who would have been in their late twenties at the time. It was probably taken in 1918 or 1919. My dad and Aunt Betty weren't there yet and my grandparents were married in 1914. That's Aunt Tina (she of the nut bread recipe) at around the age of 4, and Aunt Edna at the age of 2, is in Grandpa's lap. I think the young man was my Grandpa's cousin. My grandmother was from the south (Peddlar Mills, VA) and my grandfather immigrated from Turkey. What? I always thought he'd immigrated from Lebanon. My cousin sent his citizenship document and it said Turkey was his country of origin. I'm not so certain that's accurate. He may have come here via Turkey but I don't believe that's where he was born.  This is an instance where written and official documents don't line up with the oral history.

Connie and David met at the boarding house where she worked in Richmond. I wonder if their marriage would have been scandalous given the time and place. She was a southerner and he was a handsome immigrant with a "dark complexion" (see top document) who obviously, swept her off her feet. I have stronger memories of my grandmother than I do of my grandfather.  I was pretty young when he passed away and he'd been ill for awhile. I'm sorry I didn't play 1,000 questions when they were both still alive to gather more information about the origins of our family.  I learned more about my grandfather when we cleaned out my mom and dad's home after they passed away.  We found many Masonic items that had belonged to Grandpa.  How does a man who immigrated from Turkey become a Mason?

Connie's father fought in the civil war. He had to be very young during the war, and she was born rather late in his life.  As a northerner, I found it incredible that my great grandfather had been a Confederate soldier.  I don't ever recall discussions of her family owning slaves. Given that she came from a rather poor area of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, that isn't likely. At least I hope it isn't. One thing is certain, we can't retract the actions of our ancestors, we can only strive to rectify the things from the past that weren't quite right.  I'm glad I don't have to explain away Thomas Jefferson's actions.  How could someone who embraced freedom and wrote so eloquently about it, have maintained a lifestyle afforded only by keeping slaves?  One hundred and eighty seven of them.  How could he have sired children he then kept as slaves?  If you look at the last sentence  of my grandfather's citizenship papers, you'll see it says, "In testimony whereof the seal of said court is hereunto affixed on the 7th day of January in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-One and of our Independence the One Hundred and Forty-Fifth."  It took much less time for David to become a full fledged citizen of our country than it did the slaves who were born here.

Tell me, and only because I'm incredibly nosy, what kind of family legacy do you have?  Have you taken the time to query your parents and grandparents?  If not, and you still can, don't let the grass grow under your feet.  You may never get another chance to get at the truth.


Brenda said...

That was some very impressive genealogy along with stories. I spent one whole winter doing it after my Mom died and left me her stuff she had been working on. That is a really fun thing to do. I attended a class on how to do it also. I had to put it aside and haven't gotten back to it. The teacher at the class told us if you ever run across anything with stories you are lucky. Just a bunch of dates and names are like reading the phone book.
I would love to find out more about my heritage. I am Scottish, Irish on my Dad's side and French and ? (mystery) on my Mom's side.

Miss 376 said...

I love looking at old photos. Can remember my Nan being most put out when my Uncle did some research and found out that his great, great, great , great, great grandfather was an illiterate, drunken sailor. I think she was expecting great things

Sandy said...

Wow, what a great post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading some of your history.

I always asked questions. I know enough about my ancestors to have a good idea that they were drinkers and carousers. Some came from Ireland, some from Scotland and some were prominent and some not so.

nice post to read.

Winifred said...

That was a really impressive posting.

I have to say I haven't researched my family tree. I wish I had talked to my dad and grandad more about their wartime experiences but they certainly didn't volunteer any information.

I've watched recent TV programmes where famous people have done it and it throws up some surprises. All my great grandparents were English and my daughter has been researching as she's more interested than I am.

I just like looking at the old photos, wish I had more of them.

laurie said...

that's a great photo, and a great story.

another reason the russians might not have had any pictures on display: t hey might not have had any. depending on when they left, and how quickly, and how many places they settled in between....

i love old family stories.

Anonymous said...

I have read and enjoyed your. I normally do...
Interesting, we always thought Lebanon. Dad always talked about his Syrian Ass.
So are we.....Lebsyrkish?


Rudee said...

OOH Brenda, now we have to guess what mystery heritage you have. This could be fun.

Miss and Sandy, my mother's father used to brew "rootbeer" in the basement "bathtub" during prohibition. He was Belgian. What would you expect?

Winifred, who knows what you'll find if you back far enough?

Laurie, I'm sure they had a hard time getting here. My patient had an interesting background which makes me wonder why they'd have "let" him leave.

Rudee said...

FTM, I like how you just made up a whole new heritage. Of course that's what we are. Makes perfect sense to me!

Wendy said...

I have tried and tried. My maternal mom has a dad who she didn't really know (he left them after the second world war) and on the other side, my grandpa came over from Sweden and refused to speak about his parents for a reason that I do not know. He changed his name.

I envy people who know their roots!