30 November 2009

Confessions of an Ancestor-Phile

Let me start by saying that if "Ancestor-Phile" is not a legitimate term somewhere, somehow, then the world is just wrong.

When I was very young, I would sit on the floor at my Grandfather's, Opa's, or Great Aunt Margaret's knee and listen, rapt, to their stories. Stories of youthful foibles, starting out in life adventures, tales of immigration, foreign lands (some of them even outside of the USA) and their own recollections of stories passed on to them by ancestors totally unknown to me - but loved and missed nevertheless. They came alive, those times and places and people.

To this day, I wish that I had been old enough to hear them re-told as they really happened, not as you tell them to an 8 year old (though to Margaret's credit, she was the only one who talked to me as a peer when I was 8. It was just her way). Well, at least those stories from my Opa, who emigrated to the US from war-torn Germany in 1923.

So it was with these vague thoughts swirling in my head that I watched my remaining Great Aunt, Mary, and my Grandmother make their way in to my parents' home on Thanksgiving Day. The Ladies, as they're called, are the very last of what I thought of as my Living Ancestors. Grandma was never much of a story teller, not the way that Grandpa, an Irish Bard in a previous life; or Opa, a born talker; or Margaret, a tri-lingual teacher of English had been.

But Mary, Mary could spin a good Back When yarn in her day. She has a rich history - born in Chicago, joined the WAVEs during WWII and trained pilots on combat aircraft in the Navy, taught History at the same school as Margaret (how they came to meet and grow to be old spinsters together), suffered the same persecution for being Catholic in an upscale Protestant district that Margaret used to tell me about, fire in her eyes.

I realized, as I saw my once active, athletic aunt wheel her walker up in to the living room, that I was probably looking at one of the last holidays with her. Hunched over with osteoperosis now, slowed and forgetful by a stroke, I helped her to a rocking chair that had belonged to my great-great-great aunt, Minnie. When she settled in, I asked her about her time in the Navy. The stories she told me when I was young were old and dusty in my head, growing faded and sepia toned. I wanted them back, in full color. I wanted them brought back to the fore.

She couldn't remember them. She thought she might have been a WAC, but I gently prodded her that I thought she once told me she had been in the Navy. And that was...it.

I asked my father, later, outside about her memory. My experience with most elder dementia (and we have a long and storied history in my own lifetime in my family) has been that the old memories replace the present. It happened to my Grandfather, my Opa, Aunt Margaret, and is happening to my Grandmother as well. I was shocked that Mary didn't remember.

"No, I made sure to get that story a while ago," my father reassured me.

I was relieved that it was safe in someone else's head. He told me what he knew, but it still lacked something. It felt incomplete. Now, as it was told to me by my father, The Story is locked in my head too - but it's still fuzzy around the edges and not brightly colored again as I had hoped.

With the passing of each Ancestor, my life feels a little bit robbed of something. They have been my connection to What Was. My authorities on eras past. My rocks. The idea of losing The Ladies is more than a little frightening, but really, in talking to them this holiday, I accepted that in some way, they're already lost to time.

Yet I was most grateful for their presence with us. I cherished those moments when I could see the clouds part a little bit and the old twinkles, unique to each of them, reappear. As Mary left, she smiled at me and said, "Maybe soon I'll buzz on up to Boston to see you..." an old saying of hers. "I'll buzz right over and pick you up." But then, her smile grew wan as she looked at her walker. "Of course," she chuckled, "I won't. But it's nice to think that I could." I hugged her as hard as I felt safe in doing and prayed that I'll see her again.

One of the things I would like to do for A is to write what stories I do remember to pass on to her. I'm sad that she won't have the experiences of being next to what I consider the Greatness in my family as I remember it, but I am thrilled to know that my own parents will be there to be Greatness for her to remember when she's my age.

In all, ut was a very good Thanksgiving.

Are the stories of your family history important to you? Whose do you remember and cherish the most?


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