Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Memory Keeper's Cousin

The day after Christmas my mother found out that her mother’s cousin passed away right before the holiday.  That news came just days after my mom attended the funeral of her oldest cousin.  In just a matter of days, my mother’s large extended family lost two of its senior members – women who possessed knowledge about events and people in our family’s past about which the current generation knows little. 

They were the keepers of our family’s collective history. 
And no one kept that history quite like Frannie, my mother’s mothers’ cousin.  In a sense, she was a little like me – a much younger cousin who was actually the age of her cousins’ children.  I wonder now if she ever got lumped in with great-granchildren like my brother and I did.           

I’m not exactly sure when I first met Frannie but I do know that she was the first genie that I ever met.  And I don’t mean the Barbara Eden kind of genie.  I mean the genie who understands the difference between researching family history versus just searching for a name on the Internet – she was a genealogist.   It seemed as if she had tracked down practically every branch of our family tree and she kept all that information in massive binders of loose-leaf paper on which her lengthy notes were hand written.  She was a genealogist at a time when searching for family history wasn’t done with a click of a button but instead required hundreds of hours combing through dusty tomes or sitting at microfilm readers looking for that one name to buried on the page. 
Her work was all very admirable but that’s not the reason why I liked Frannie.  I liked her because she was the first person to make my family’s history come alive.  My mom and I went to visit her and her husband, Harry, and I remember being in her kitchen when she told me an amazing story about my grandmother being an air raid warden in World War II.  Her memories were a window to a past that has largely been forgotten. 

The sad part is that past has been forgotten because there aren’t many around to tell us about it.  My mother’s family is not a long-lived one.  Her father died at 49.  2 of her siblings died before they were 60.  Her oldest brother died at 62.  By the end of 1990, my mother had lost that brother, her mother, and one sister within three years of each other.  A lot of our family history was lost with them – some missing parts only filled in by a great-aunt here or a cousin-once-removed there. 
People like Frannie. 

The past continues to slip away. 
People like Frannie continue to slip away. 

Earlier this year, after conversations with some cousins, I decided to set up a website dedicated to our family history - to capture what we are slowly losing as the years go by.   It’s a place where we can share our family records – I am an archivist after all, our photographs, and our stories.  It’s where we can recall our shared history and keep our memories from fading too far into the past.  It’s a way to connect with our past and reconnect with one another.

I have been blown away by the response.  All the work paid off when one of my cousin’s daughters emailed me and said “Our family had a bar?!  I never knew that.”  That was a good night.  I’m also having tons of fun doing it – it’s all the things that I love – writing, history, records, making the past come alive.            
Even though the past will continue to slip away, I am hopeful that our stories and our memories will not.

I think Frannie would like that.   

1 comment:

  1. Denise, we are so happy that you came along even though you are #33. Bill and I visited Frannie and Harry each year when we went east to see Bill's parents. It was a "must" that we go see Frannie. She would get out her books and I would update the information on my children and grandchildren and any other information that I had on family members. Franny's passing left a big hole in this family, but Denise you have begun to fill in that hole. And, God willing, with the help of the rest of us left, I am sure you will take up the mantle and make Frannie proud. I'm sure she is looking down on you from Heaven and saying, "You go, girl"!!