While many of us earnestly research and write of ancestors long buried, the family history writer can leave a legacy of stories to future generations through memoirs and oral history woven among the dry facts of name, place and time. Years ago, I began my work as a genealogist. However, it was soon apparent that I desired more depth of my family’s history from my efforts. So my research evolved into the work of a family historian.
My experience at ancestral family research has been a challenge. My remote ancestors left few records detailing their lives. Only those born in the 20th century obtained literacy. One of my ancestral lines eschewed the broader community of city or town. They preferred, it seems to remain isolated along the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western Carolinas, where the outside world rarely ventured. I can use generalities from circumstantial evidence and social histories of the region in order to imagine the content of the daily lives of these ancestors, but I cannot know it. Thus, their stories are imbued with uncertainty and disclaimers.
However, from my long interest in oral history and its methodologies, I recognize that I can leave to my descendants a first person account of their ancestors as told in the ancestor’s own voice or the voice of an eyewitness. So over the past several years, I have collected narratives from my living generations. Slowly, I hope to compile these accounts into a family’s journey through generations. I do this because I discovered during the process of family oral history research what it means for me to be the person that I am. I would like to teach my children how to understand themselves through their origins.
Not all such accounts, whether biographies or memoirs, are easy for me to write. Facts are easy enough to collect, but the interpretation that weaves these facts coherently into an understanding of events are difficult and sometimes painful. The story about my maternal grandmother is one example. So much of her life was so closely connected with the latter part of my mother’s life. It was difficult to write about my mom as a major character in Mammaw’s story. Each time I would write “Mother” or “Mom” in the draft, I could feel grief surface and my objectivity as an historian dissolve into tears. When I began using my mom’s given name, however, the one that my grandmother gave her, I was able to distance myself enough to allow Mammaw’s voice to more clearly come through. It helped enormously to examine that period from someone else’s perspective. It added dimension to my knowledge and understanding of two women who were so prominent in my life.
An earlier version of Mammaw’s story was originally published in The Dallas Journal (2007).