A gift of history

by Terry Hogan

We die, not by the passing of years, but by seconds. We make as much or as little of life as we desire. We can make history, pass it on, or let it be lost. The candle of ancestral knowledge is easily snuffed out but hard to rekindle. The young replace the old and, in time and in turn, are also replaced. Each generation must decide if the stories are worth retelling. It is an individual decision.

As I am writing this, it is less than two weeks before Christmas. I am in the Scrooge-mode. Too many shoppers, too much glitz, too few gift ideas. I wander around the local shopping mall, looking for inspiration. I find none. I am not alone. I see many other "sale-shocked" last minute shoppers, burnt out by too may "20 to 50% off" signs. I long for reason to prevail, for people to stress the importance of family gatherings rather than to stress­out at family gatherings. I long, but I am not optimistic. One of life's great questions should not be "What do you get for the person who has everything?"

I recall a couple of Christmases ago. I gave gifts of family histories, a work in progress (it never ends, you only give up). And for one family member, I also gave a framed copy of her parents' wedding picture­­ a wedding that occurred October 2, 1912. The family histories represented literally hundreds of hours of research in libraries around the U.S. and correspondence with other folks who were doing similar research. The gifts were handmade, of a fashion, and could not have been given by anyone else. And like all handmade gifts for Christmas, the season came faster than anticipated, and the work suffered a little for lack of time. But it did provide the essence.

A couple of the family histories were quickly set aside and have not been read. But this was anticipated. It will be 20 or 30 years before this gift of family history, with its splattering of errors and its bias of recorded oral family histories, becomes important to these younger recipients. They are too busy living lives to be contemplating the significance of it. For the more senior members of the families, it has occasionally provoked the telling of more oral histories and early recollections of their youth. For those recipients who were of about my age, I am not sure how important the books were to them. A certain amount of indifference is a good thing in a family. A family can tolerate only so many genealogists.

Not many of us had historical figures as ancestors. There are only so many Grants, Shermans, Lincolns around. Most of us were related not to these leaders, but to those teaming masses of soldiers who were scared, but followed orders to face death and injury. The soldiers' stories were generally not recorded. We are left with piecing together fragments of dry military and pension records with unit histories and descriptions of battles ­­ in the hope of turning statistics back to flesh. When we read the results of our efforts, seldom are we greeted with the cry, "It's alive!" Oral history, handed down, generation to generation, is important for those of us who are from common but solid stock. If we don't value it, who will?

America is a resting place for travelers. We are all emigrants or descendants of emigrants. Some came voluntarily, others as deportees or as captive slaves. What we share in common is the loss of historical roots. We are the melting pot, the unpedigreed mutts, perhaps compensated by some hybrid vigor but mutts none the less. Our origins are elsewhere.

Of course, it is much easier to write about ancestors never met, than to write about parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The reason is obvious. It is hard for the dead to contradict. The living are more easily offended and their perceptions will likely be different than our own. Often oral histories appear to contradict. One of my relatives told me of the rather unpleasant nature of her father, a gentleman that I never met. However, this man's grandchild has related pleasant memories about time spent with his grandfather. Perhaps both recollections are correct and not contradictory. Being a grandfather is like a second chance at parenting. Perhaps he wasn't a very good father, but he may have grown into becoming a good grandfather. I will never know, but I like this explanation the best.

I do know that the Christmas gift of the old wedding photo, in a metal Victorian frame, was appreciated. It was a unique gift. A gift of acknowledgement of those who came before us and for those yet to come. A frozen moment on the stage of life.

A gift of history.

In memory of my father, Lloyd Ernest Hogan, who died December 31, 1997, Galesburg.

Posted to Zephyr Online December 24, 1998
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