by Constance Daley
The American Reporter
St. Simons Island, Ga.
April 19, 2005
A HOPE FOR THE FUTURE, A LINK TO THE PAST
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It took only seven fast decades to go from being the baby of the family to becoming the oldest functioning member of a very large clan.
Still clear in my memory is hearing again and again, "You're our hope for the future." It was not only said to me in the thirties it was said to our classes by teachers; it was mentioned in speeches when emphasis was on escaping the past and approaching the future with the raw material our youth would provide.
Maybe some in the room would rise to the challenge, clothe themselves in the mantle being draped about their shoulders; but, most of us took on life one day at a time. That's the way our parents did it and we were just happy youngsters. Our parents and older siblings had a sense of responsibility and made sure that our lives would be better than theirs had been. It's been said, theirs was the great generation.
Three years before I was born, the Stock Market crashed and initiated the great depression, often introduced with capital letters. It was an era not to be forgotten. The family love and humor would help me to escape the stigma of poverty that so plagued these stalwart people in their recent years.
So, here I am after 70 years, still living happily ever after, dancing to the music of what happens. One day at a time does add up and the memories are of delightful things always overtaking the things I somehow got over, through, around or just rose above. That's life. I inherited the resiliency they passed down to us without our having to bear the same burdens.
Suddenly, though, I have become a source of information. I'm the youngest of the older generation in our family that came to this country. As such, I'm being tracked down from far and wide to verify and identify what younger generations want to know about their heritage. Before families scattered as they have now, an interested nephew, niece or cousin could run to grandma or aunt Nellie and just ask.
Today, emails from veritable strangers arrive, and I do what I can with what I know to put them on the right track as they search their family tree on the Internet. Coincidently, our family tree grew from the very same roots. This, I can help with: birth order, middle names, a few pictures I have of the homestead where their forebears grew up and then left to seek their own fortunes - branching out to wherever their dreams would take them. No problem. I have that and I'll share it.
But now, there are ethical questions facing me. Does my knowing something that someone chose not to tell their children mean I must also keep the secret? Or, should they know? If they go to records in the Vital Statistics offices of whatever city they were raised in, they could find the information and I would be out of it. Do I direct traffic on the Internet highway? Most of the information I've kept to myself was learned by just chatting with my mother while she read long letters from her brothers and sisters. She would never have unburdened herself if she had predicted we would one day be communicating instantly to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Am I to reveal to a relative seeking roots that these are not those roots because of adoption? No, I'm not. I even know the name of the birth family from which the adoptee came and where the desired roots could be checked. No, I won't be telling that either. This was from a time when adoption was not an open record. I've decided not to say anything at all.
I'm being queried by people three generations beyond the incidents, yet I feel as if I'm hiding something and, emotionally, it's painful. I feel like paraphrasing the old remark: "Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it." I could admonish these young people to "be careful what you ask for; you may not like what you hear."
It works in the reverse, too. They are telling me things about people I knew but I never knew where life took them. I now have the end of the stories - sometimes a happy ending; sometimes not.
On the one hand, this; on the other hand, that. With each generation, the connection by blood is diminished. The young cousin, acting as family historian for her family, is a great granddaughter whereas I am a daughter of the family she seeks. Each of us has a father and a mother; my mother is my link, her great grandmother is her connection, two sisters in a large family growing up in the 1880's.
These young genealogists have mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers on each side, daughters have grandmothers and grandfathers, again on each side, ever widening the path between us and our common ancestor.
As a child, I loved being the hope for the future, not knowing where it would take me. I'm finding that being a link to the past will take me into just such unknown places again. My memories are sharp and true to the times; now, however, they are overlapping into the perceptions others might have as to what happened in the past to bring them to their present.
I can provide facts and, of course, I will; but I hesitate to verify their illusions or perhaps, turn old gossip into historical facts. They might have come in on the last chapter of the family legend and only surmised what had gone before. Or, too, they could shatter my own illusions. No, it's not always comfortable.
What I savor most about these last seven decades is that they are what they were; I can't change a minute of it. What comes next will be what will be. And hasn't it always been thus?
Because of our penchant for keeping records, whole households, exactly as they were that year, are listed every decade by name and age, occupation and religious affiliation. It's the decennial Census and it's all there for any of us to find. (It's thrilling, it really is, to visualize the head of household, my Grampa, in 1891, sitting at the kitchen table and giving information to the local Census taker - information that I can read now.)
That's what I want to give to my inquiring cousins, not so much the information, but the joy of seeking and finding. And, at the risk of looking as if I don't care enough to do it for them, I will supply their "link to the past," a cyber link, that is.