Wisdom of the Elders

by Mary Ducharme (February 2021)

There is a way to ease isolation caused by the Covid epidemic. Start the family history you always meant to do: the stories and the facts, the good and the heartbreaking. Soon in the quest, it becomes such a mixture of fact and sometimes unreliable folk memory that you feel like a detective. Or it may be a personal expedition to find true ancestral identity. Whatever the motivation, the search has its surprises, and the mind stretches to take ownership of the ancestors who struggled to create a meaningful life, just as we do.

Sometimes children show an interest in family history. Sometimes not so much. The key to the young mind and historical interest is in physical involvement, tangible items that can be touched, used. Children need to be making something, creating, photographing, writing the story. But the elder needs to relay what the story is.

A good way to start is with family elders finding teachable moments to tell stories of ‘the old days’ and to open those old proverbial trunks in the attic to reveal objects of memory from past generations.

A brass whistle, a medal, and a moth-eaten army uniform at the bottom of the trunk is easy to toss away. It is only a family elder that knows the story that they belonged to great-great grandfather who lost his hearing because he was an artillery sergeant in World War II. The photo of him is in Nara, Japan a day after August 6th, 1945 when “Little Boy,” the fission bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Knowing this leads on, the story gets larger, more important.

Any object can take on a life of its own if the story comes to light: a flag folded perfectly into a triangle, or a striking photo of beautiful young women in extravagant hats. Who are these people? Where did they come from? How are they connected with us? The stories cry out to be heard. If these treasures are kept away from the curiosity of children, too long in “safe keeping,” it becomes too late for the elder. There is an African saying that when an elder dies, it is as if an entire library burns to the ground. The opportunity is gone, the next generation does not have the knowledge, and the history becomes fodder for the dump.

The younger set may one day enjoy a beautifully illustrated childrens’ book about ten-year-old John Peter Scriver. The book is not written but should be, by some future young writer who has the imagination and empathy for a boy who trekked through the wilderness alone when one of the runners broke on the sled the two oxen were pulling. It was the winter of 1800 and the narrow trail through the wilderness was dark, with wolves prowling. . . Another story : seventeen-year-old Jane McNaughton cared for ten brothers and one sister after her mother died. She saved her small brother from dying of smallpox when there was great risk of becoming sick herself. There are so many good stories like these for Hemmingford, but they need to be “out there” – known.

If you become “hooked on history”, explorations may expand to Ancestry.com to discover that other researchers are also looking for your shared family history. DNA testing, now readily available, can also yield surprising results of a family’s geographical and racial origins. And don’t forget our own Hemmingford Archives to find what many elders know, but the younger generations have never heard.

Note: The story of the battle at Odelltown that completes the series about William Barr and The Road to Odelltown will be available on the Archives Hemmingford website: sites. google.com/site/hemmingfordarchives/