I’m not exactly sure when my passion for family history became a focal point for me. It must have stemmed from my visits to my grandparents – both sets – in Astoria. Large family meals around round tables, stories flying, jokes and belly laughs so long and deep we were sore the next day, family heirlooms found and shared, pictures identified, and then more stories. Those memories are still thick in my blood, and I still dream about the roads leading up to those homes, certain rooms, certain objects, smells.
I wanted to know more about my family and where they came from. I wanted to know where my brother got his chin, and why I seemed to have the same grit and perseverance as my great grandfather. I wanted to know how I was related to the Chinook Indian Nation, and why so many of our lines led back to Ireland. I wanted to know if we truly were related to Betsy Ross as family rumors told, and if our Rubens line truly linked back to the man who created the Rubenesque style of paining. I wanted to know who I was, this culmination of generations of ancestors.
That’s when I started researching, going through boxes of pictures with my parents and grandparents to identify them, attended family reunions, took genealogy classes, put together a family newsletter, and did all I could to get our ancestors’ stories. Finding details and the far-reaching family lines jazzed me. I got so geeky excited when a puzzle piece would fall into place that would lead me to another person or generation.
What I found to be even more important were the stories. It was great to have dates and places and names, but finding out who the people were and how they lived made them explode in my imagination. Imagine, my great grandfather, a very able fisherman who had a large piece of land in Astoria, died from sepsis because he stabbed his finger with a fishing hook. Imagine, Chief Comcomly of the Chinook people greeting Lewis and Clark, knowing I am a descendant of him and one of his nine wives. Imagine, the story behind Tamale Pie, and how my grandmother would make this based on what was in her head, the recipe recorded on paper only a few years ago. Imagine, learning how to make gillnets from my grandfather, holding the wooden needles made from apple wood, and hearing my mother tell me one of her jobs was filling those needles for granny. Imagine, my mother sneaking out at night to go swimming in large tanks of water on the military base known as Fort Stevens, only to find out just this year that they were cable testing tanks for the underwater mines placed in the Columbia to ward off enemy ships during World War I. Imagine, my grandmother, whose parents came from Norway, mentioning a special gift of sight that all the women in her line had had, yet elaborating no further. Imagine, an entire culture just two generations out, cloaked in mist, never understood, never spoken of, lost.
Most of my ancestors lived with the land and nature, and therefore had a healthy respect and reverence for the earth and life. So have I my entire life. Most of my family were blue collar workers, with grit and ingenuity and creativity. I call upon those qualities often. Most of my family have lived rather simple lives, with sparks of “holy cow!” thrown in at random. I can relate. Mealtimes were times of gathering, warmth, food, stories, laughter, discussion. I do my best to create that same atmosphere with my family.
Thing is, passing these stories along is important. How else will my children understand who came before them? How else will they know how their ancestors moved, what choices they made and what mistakes they can learn from? Understanding those who came before us allows us to understand who we are. And who we’re not. It gives rise to memory, history, experience. It gives us a place in the flow of things.
Stories give an accounting. They are witnessed, heard, sung, retold, written. Stories are living things – beings that traverse time and space, whispering teachings and guidance, inspiring, validating, commiserating, communing. They can be ugly, bent, spitting at you with vile words and feelings. But worse than that, the story that is extinguished by the untelling is the greatest tragedy. So much, lost.
This is why I do this work. To make known our stories so that they may live and be told.