September 27, 2011, is “Ancestor Appreciation Day.” In honor of the occasion, permit me to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, a sixth-grade girl had to do a report on her ancestors. Not the long-dead Viking captains her parents praised in eulogy, or the subsequent generations that made their living on the sea as captains of clippers and other sailing ships. No, this report required a living ancestor, though the little girl could select any one she wished.
But she didn’t find any of them very interesting.
She had an aunt with a PhD in mathematics, but the first woman in the family to obtain a doctoral degree isn’t all that exciting when you’re twelve. She had a father who served in the F.B.I., but he was only a common lawyer now. She had a mother who taught school…but our sixth-grade heroine hardly considered that worth a mention.
In the end, she chose her great-grandfather, Al. Not because she wanted to, but because he was close, and very old, and her mother said he had a good story to tell.
Al was ninety-three years old at the time, and still lived by himself (with a maid) in a house just a block from the little girl. She chose him more from convenience than real interest. He smelled funny, walked slowly, and had liver-spots on his balding head.
To a sixth-grade girl, Al was strange.
But she took her tape recorder, walked up the street, and sat down to interview Al – the oldest surviving member of her family, and the most crotchety as well. As she walked, she wondered what she could ask him to keep the conversation going. She hoped she could find something interesting in his past. At least enough for the one-page report her teacher had assigned.
When she arrived, she set up her tape recorder and asked, “What did you do when you were my age?” It seemed like the best way to start. (And also, her mother had suggested it.)
“When I was twelve, I came across the country in a covered wagon.”
For the next ninety minutes, he told his great-granddaughter about his journey from the East Coast to California. About a girl he met in the wagon train who accidentally forgot a cast iron frying pan one morning and had to run back through the prairie to retrieve it – while the wagons continued their journey West.
“She caught up by the time we camped that night,” he explained, “but they couldn’t afford to leave that pan behind.”
The girl listened in silent awe and wondered if she had the courage to retrieve that pan.
At some point the tape clicked off. Both sides were filled with great-grandfather’s treasured memories. The interview was over. Yet he talked on, and the little girl listened. He told her about ice skating on ponds in the winter, of buying a house two miles from the Pacific Ocean – at a time when California was lightly settled enough that a man could still see all the way from that house to the coast. He talked about practicing law, and his wife – now deceased – and how much he liked the fact that his eldest grandson and great-granddaughter lived only a block away. He talked about some things the girl would not remember, and many many more she would never forget.
He connected her to himself, and through himself to history, the family, and the roots the sixth-grader sensed but did not fully appreciate for decades.
I appreciate them now.
Al is gone, and has been for many years, but I still remember that morning in his living room. I remember taking my seat in frustration, and how my sense of duty faded into admiration as my great-grandfather shared his tale.
We are a race of storytellers, because stories connect us to one another. They bind us. They draw us from solitude to community, and they help us understand not only where we came from but where we would like to go.
Have you talked with your ancestors lately? Take the time to stop and really listen – not only to them, but to everyone around you. You, too, might be surprised at the stories they have to tell.
In celebration of ancestors’ day – hop into the comments and tell me where you came from!