A Trip Through Time. No Wayback Machine Required.

I recently began the VERY LONG process of researching my family roots.  At 40-something, we start to realize that seemingly recent memories include our  parents at a much younger age than we are now.  We say things like “Wow, I’m already 15 years older than my parents are in this photo.”  The it-seems-like-only- yesterday recollections jolt us to reality when we do the math.

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From my grandfather to my grandmother in Portland, Maine during WW1.

As a kid I was always intrigued by the past (as in dinosaur past) and thought I would someday like to be an anthropologist or archeologist.  And then I became fascinated with the story behind the tragedy of Pompeii (and realized I wanted to be a designer of Italian shoes).  When reading about the volcanic eruption that preserved a piece of history, I was simultaneously horrified and excited at the thought of being able to see what actually happened, as that horrendous moment was frozen in time.  Years later I am still fascinated by Pompeii, and I have promised my kids that someday I will take them there myself.  It’s a trip I have wanted to make for a long time.

I’m not alone in this fascination of time travel.  The thought of meeting our ancestors is so alluring, that there have been countless books, films and TV shows based on such a fantasy, complete with the temptation and ramifications of warning our predecessors of what was to come. But imagine visiting a village in a foreign land, or in the same land, from 500 years ago where you could see how your relatives lived, worked and struggled, and maybe fled the only homeland they knew.

Until we have any kind of time travel technology, we have to rely on oral history, old letters and pictures that have escaped ruin over the years.  Luckily now we have a great deal of information at our fingertips through websites devoted to such things.  And communicating with a resource on the other side of the globe is so easy now.


My grandfather heading off to war, about 1919.

But today’s ease of finding information doesn’t change the amount of information available.  It doesn’t change history.  Many people simply don’t have a record of their family’s existence. Slaves, peasants, and people who might have been illiterate or in some way low in the caste system, were not as likely to have had their existence recorded.  And names have changed, borders have changed and some languages have even died.

I recently uncovered names of relatives I’d never heard of before.  Some of them even have different spellings of the same name.  I found letters from my grandfather (that’s him on the left) written while overseas during WW1, to my grandmother, a young, beautiful girl in Portland Maine who was counting the days until her soldier came home.  A fascinating part of family research is realizing the people you only knew as old, were once……yes, young!  My sweet, gray haired Nana (we called her Nana Banana) who baked cookies and always seemed like a million years old to me, was actually a young girl at one time, madly in love with a 17 year old boy fighting in the war. (Grampa lied about his age to get into the army).  It felt a little wrong to read all their letters.  But somehow I think they’d both cherish the fact that the letters were so special to us.

The other day I was cleaning out a closet and came across a large container of other memorabilia.  It was the stuff MY grandchildren will read one day and say, “I thought she was just this eccentric old, short woman who wears too much eye shadow.  I didn’t realize she was so full of mischief, well-traveled, had lots of boyfriends, and lots of dreams at one time.”

My kids looked at some of my memories with me.  (I had to hide certain items since they are still good boys!)  I found notes written to and from my friends during middle and high school (today’s version of texting).  I found photos in which I distinctly remember thinking I looked fat (and I wasn’t).  I found name tags from various after school jobs.  I found report cards.  I found letters that, sadly, my kids will never have as part of their own history because kids don’t write letters to each other anymore.  And anything they do write is electronic so there are no pieces of paper to open, to tuck away, to cherish, and to re-discover later on, like I have just been able to do.  The excitement of seeing the handwriting of your sweetheart is a thing of the past.  Somehow Arial 14 and Helvetica 12 just don’t have the same impact.

One letter I found was from a cousin who was replying to genealogical questions I must have asked him, at the age of about 8 or 10.  So I guess I have long wondered about my family, but put my interest to rest for quite some time.  Now I am at an age where there aren’t a whole lot of people left from the generations before me.  And many stories have died along with the storytellers. Oh how I wish I had another chance to pay attention to all those stories.

So it’s my goal and perhaps my duty, to record everything I can for generations to come, with or without too much eye shadow.   I only hope they will be as entertained and interested by it all as I am.  I think they will.

Top photo is my grandfather’s sister Dora, 1897-1993.

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