Saturday, November 23, 2013

Shaking the Family Tree

One of the things I hate most about being part of a fractured family is losing a connection to the past for my children and grandchildren.

I know that connection, an ability to reach back and remember things about grandparents and even those we never met, is probably long lost by many of today's families as they scatter across the globe, divorce and remarry, have steps and formers, and all too often lose the ties to what came before.

It's a part of the rise in popularity in family reunions -- a search for those people who share your genetics, your eyes, your nose, your thick ankles and curly hair. It drives such efforts as and computer programs to track and recreate the generations that came before, to somehow get to know these people that helped shape us in ways no plastic surgeon or psychiatrist can touch.

I grew up so surrounded by that sense of family so thick that it sometimes seemed I could not see myself. Yet, as I grow older, I wish that I had more of it to hang onto. I wish I had more of it to share with my children. But even if I had all that I could have gathered from my own family, a divorce 20 years ago and a father who made no effort to stay in their lives means they would still have only half the picture.

One of my treasures -- the things I would actually try to grab if my house were on fire -- is a small photo album full of old pictures. Some are childhood pictures of me and my family. Others go back further, to my grandparents as young people, and then further up my family tree on my father's side.

Looking at them sometimes I can say, yes, there's my nose. There's my thick, wavy hair. There's my feet and ankles. Surrounded by these people growing up I gathered stories of my past that I know need to be preserved. It's an exercise I think we might all need to undertake for ourselves and for those who will follow. We think it doesn't matter, but there may well come a point where we wish we remembered and wish that we had told the younger people around us those stories we took for granted.

My paternal grandparents were about a generation ahead of my mother's parents. Edgar Jefferson Beamer and Mazie Burcham Beamer both lost their mothers at a young age and grew up in the Coal Creek/Crooked Creek area of Carroll County, Va. My grandfather never attended school, although Mazie was a graduate of the one-room schoolhouse near her home. They married in the 1930s and my granny lost her father and her first born daughter within a few short days of one another in the early '30s. Their tombstones reminded us of the sad tale many times as we grew. They raised a daughter, Betty, and a younger son, my father Bobby, and my grandfather farmed and worked in one of the furniture factories that once made Galax, Va. a boom town. I still remember the Christmas gatherings for the employees when they brought along the family and we had a visit with Santa Claus and went home with a holiday stocking full of items way better than today's children get with an overpriced happy meal. Granny tended her garden, grew flowers known throughout the area, took care of the nursery at church for decades, crocheted and weaved rag rugs on a barn loom in the basement. She read a Bible devotional aloud each morning before breakfast, and, in addition to the most wonderful angel biscuits and strawberry shortcake, cooked a lot of cornbread, made liver pudding, and served Pa scrambled eggs and brains for breakfast in hog killing season.

My maternal grandparents were almost the polar opposites of the hardscrabble people I find in the pictures from my dad's side of the family, despite so many things in common. I think they were often town people, perhaps more educated and certainly living differently. Like Pa and Granny, Mary Tipton Hundley lost her mother when she was young. Instead of finishing her childhood on a family farm, however, her stepmother sent her away to work. She grew up in doctor's homes and boarding houses, cooking and taking care of children from Hillsville, Va., to Mount Airy, N.C. She and her siblings were scattered and although she stayed close to her sisters, her brother disappeared for decades. My grandfather, Harden Booker Bunn, had the only parents I ever knew as great-grandparents. He dropped out of school to work, so neither of them graduated, yet I remember they always had magazines and studied the Bible regularly. They married at the tender ages of 16 and 18 and while still young had my mom, Evelyn, and uncle, Charles. I grew up on what was a portion of their original family farm in a house built on land Pa gave my parents. Ma Mary always worked outside the home in the textile mills in the same towns where she once held a different sort of job, grew a big garden, and kept a spotless house. After his long commute to the arsenal in Radford, Pa didn't have time for farming until he retired, but he held onto the land which I grew up rambling with my dogs. My little brother and I occasionally stayed at their house after school or rode with Pa for a treat at the country store when he got home from work. Ma crocheted and sewed the most wonderful doll clothes for me. She was always ready to try something new (like color TV). Their house was stocked with oatmeal cookies and candy bars, and Ma made the best dumplings and chocolate pies. I have no pictures of any of her family, and only a few of Pa's, so despite the overall sense of closeness, I do have missing pieces.

My parents met at church when they were practically babies and married at the similarly young ages of 17 and 20 while my mom had a year of high school remaining, although my dad had just finished a four-year stint in the army. She did graduate and I came along about a year later, followed in almost exactly two years by my brother. She stayed home with us until after I started school (I really have no idea of my brother's situation at that time), when she went to work in the elementary school library, became a teacher's aide and eventually returned to college and earned her master's degree. My dad had a job at the arsenal with my grandpa for years when I was young, then quit and ran his own garage until he semi-retired.

Those are the bare bones of my family tree. The bits and pieces I grew up knowing, sometimes without being told. Yet even those essential bits and pieces are missing for so many people. And as keenly as I sometimes feel the absence of the small pieces I'm missing, I know they must also feel that sense of loss at times.

As I feel the urge, I expect I'll be sharing some bits of that history, as much to preserve it as to entertain any reader. The wonderful medium of the internet means that what I know can be shared with my cousins and relatives scattered across other states, to be added to their knowledge or perhaps passed on as well.

I'm glad I had the chance to know the people before me as well as I did and the opportunity to hear some of their memories first hand. It's a gift not everyone is given, or that everyone takes the time to savor.

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