This past summer my grandmother died. As my mom and dad went through her house, they found a wealth of family history. My grandmother never threw anything out, which meant I had a lot of junk to go through, but I found some wonderful treasures too. Going though everything reminded me that history isn’t just found in history books, articles and historical sites, but also right at home in those forgotten boxes in the attic or basement, or hidden in the backs of closets. My parents, grandparents, great grandparents…all have a history that is a part of my history. Albeit, that history maybe not be as important as a World War I museum or a book on the French Revolution, but it’s still fascinating to discover how my ancestors lived and how they were affected by the Great War or civil rights movements or the many other great moments in history. Old wills, newspaper articles about a car accident, and life insurance policies from 1903 tell a personal story that means more to me than any history book. And the rare letters written to family members give me a glimpse of how my great great grandparents lived.
I’ve always been the one interested in my family’s background. I always wanted to know where I came from, what my ancestors were like, and how they thought and lived. My dad’s father was a hundred percent German; his mom, a hundred percent Polish. My mom’s parents were a mix of German and Irish. I find it interesting how when you look at my brother, sister and me that each of us looks distinctly either, German (my brother), Polish (my sister) or Irish (me). And when I look back at old photos I can see where we got our physical traits. I still wonder though, what else I have in common with my ancestors. Did any of them love dance? My family isn’t the least bit graceful or drawn to the sports of ballet or figure skating, and yet I love them with a passion and possess a gracefulness that’s lacking in the rest of my family (going back three generations). And so I wonder, did this trait get passed on to me from a great-great-grandmother or great-great-aunt or some other family member, just like my physical appearance? And so I search through the papers and old letters looking for clues.
The “great moments” dominate history. It’s what we’re taught in the history books. And while they’re undoubtedly important and they played a large roll in shaping my family history, they’re still just moments all the same. Every day life is a collection of moments that show us how we lived before, during and after those great moments in history. They tell us a story that the “great” moments can’t.
While I was never given the chance to know my grandmother, the boxes of old documents and pictures she left behind have allowed me to piece together a history that tells me how my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and other ancestors lived. That’s something no history book can ever share or teach me. So I keep asking questions, trying to dig up more memories, documenting everything. As I document the past I do the same for my current life in hopes that one day I can answer questions my future family members might have about my everyday life and family. Preserving my family history has become a passion that I hope will one day pass on more than the future history books will ever be able to share.