When Anne McAllister takes a time out from writing these days, it's more often than not time spent prowling graveyards and archives and, increasingly, online databases to uncover the names and lives of dead relatives. She also relishes the opportunities -- when they arise -- to meet live ones. She explains it all today on The Pink Heart Society.
It's all about stories, really. Maybe it's something innate -- some weird story-seeking gene I was born with -- but for as long as I can remember I was asking questions about where we came from, who we came from, why we ended up where we did.
I didn't just want names and dates. I wanted stories!
When I was a child, my grandmother obliged. She told me lots of stories about her Cornish parents and their move to Montana with her two oldest sisters. She brought to life the turn-of-the-20th century mining community where she grew up. She told me all about her mother taking her and her sister, my prim and proper Aunt Rene (always prim and proper, according to my tomboy grandmother) to visit a friend who was baking bread one morning, and Rene sitting very primly down onto the chair already occupied by two rising bread loaves.
She told me about her dad's sister Harriet who drank vinegar and was always "a little strange," and about how she (Grandma) had prided herself on her swimming ability until the day she'd dived off the springboard and the sensation of being sprung up into the air so startled her that when she came down, she swallowed half the pool and had to be rescued!
Great stories. I'm thrilled to have them -- and to share those and others with my own kids and, more recently, grandkids. But sadly, I don't have Grandma to tell me stories anymore, so I've had to find them for myself.
That's when I started in earnest doing family history research. I wanted to know the truth behind my dad's tale that his grandfather was shot in the back on the road to Pauls Valley. Who shot him? I wanted to know. When did they shoot him? Why?
The story, as I began to piece it together, wasn't about my dad's grandfather at all. He, I told my dad when I got the death certificate, had died of complications resulting from alcoholism. Dad didn't much like that spin on the tale. I took it as a cautionary one myself. And I didn't doubt it the way he did. But I promised him I'd keep looking to discover the truth.
I found it a few years later. Dad's grandpa wasn't the man in the story. It was his great-grandfather who'd been shot in the back. He wasn't on the road to Pauls Valley, either. That death had been an uncle's and he hadn't been shot. The bits and pieces I discovered led me to other records, other relatives, other stories. A murder or two.
Dad was gone by the time I put it all together. I wonder sometimes if he would have wished I'd leave well enough alone!
But I love the stories. I love learning about the people whose decisions in the past have brought me to where I am today. I feel connections -- not just with blood relatives, but with all those whose actions have had an impact on mine. In fact, I don't even need my own family stories to get excited about.
Pretty much anyone's family stories will do.
It's the thrill of the hunt, the questions about motivation, the puzzles that tempt and tantalize and challenge me to solve them. And, unlike my own writing, I don't have to come up with the people or the motivations. I just have to learn what they were.
And sometimes I get to work with other similarly obsessed people. Grandma's dad had a first cousin back in Cornwall. Unlike great-grandpa who was a hard-rock miner his whole life, his cousin became a mining engineer. Even though he probably saw his share of the bottoms of mines, too, he saw them in Spain and in Mexico and the US before settling permanently in Australia.
Did great-grandpa and his first cousin stay in touch? Not at all. In fact there's a fair chance that they never even met. But I've now met the cousin's great-grandson and his wife. We've trekked over the wilds of Southwestern Wisconsin together in search of Cornish miners and the perfect Cornish pasty.
Just this week, too, their journey to England took them to the record office where I had noted records they should try to access. And hours later I got not only photos of local ponies and sheep and bridges, I got the apprenticeship records of our mutual third-great-grandfather and his brothers as well.
The apprenticeship records, combined with other records of family births and deaths and parish poorhouse records, definitely told stories -- of three young boys, "poor children of the parish." The eldest, William, was apprenticed at age eight to a local farmer. Barely nine months later, his father died. The parish paid for his funeral and provided funds for his pregnant wife "in necessity." Two weeks after that, John, the second boy, turning six that year, was sent as apprentice to another farm. Only three year old Samuel was left home with his widowed mother, to be joined by a baby sister that summer.
Samuel was in the poorhouse at age four. His mother and sister came there the following summer. A year later the parish paid a pound to bury his mother. At age eight Samuel was apprenticed to a third farmer in the parish.
It's not a pretty story. It's stark and it's painful. Yet seen from the distance of two hundred plus years, it is a testimony to three young boys' fortitude, to their determination to make something of themselves, to rise out of the poverty they were born into. William became a thatcher. He provided for a family of nine. At his death at age seventy-two, he left a wife with an annuity to provide for her support. Sam, too, rose out of poverty. He became a carpenter and joiner by trade. He married twice, had no children, but when two of William's daughters were old enough to work outside the home (not at eight, but at fifteen), they came to work in Exeter where Sam was living.
Bit by bit, record by record, the stories come alive again. Some are funny. Some are eye-opening. Some are tragic. They're all worth discovering, sharing, remembering. They've informed my own life and my own decisions. They've provided role models and cautionary tales and sometimes inspiration.
A few have found their way into my books. They've all found their way into my heart -- even the stories about people who don't actually belong to me by blood or by family ties. They belong to me because by sharing their stories, they become part of mine.
Do you have family stories? Have you researched your own family or someone else's? I'd love to hear about them.
Anne's Montana cowboys, like Cole McCullough in her most recent book, Last Year's Bride, share family history with her own family on both sides, Cole's wife Nell, an adopted child, shares the story of a mixed biological and adopted family with Anne's own. To find out more about Anne and her books, please visit her website.