I remember two generations back: my parents and grandparents. Through photos and written materials, I know some things about a couple more generations. Beyond that, I have names from genealogical records, notations in family bibles, and so on. That’s it.
Even this is a bit unusual. I bet most people don’t know the names of their great-grandparents. I asked some friends about this, recently: Can you list the birth names of all of your grandparents? And, how many of your great-grandparents can you name? (Thanks to everyone who responded. I find this to be fascinating.) Not everyone could name all grandparents, and hardly anyone could name all great-grandparents.
I wouldn’t be able to, if I didn’t have the documents. The threads of most family oral histories stretch back a generation or two, then vanish. We live in a little clips of time, the past and the future unknown.
On my father’s side, the family moved from Dublin, Ireland (where Thomas, shown in the photo, was born) to Harwich, County of Kent, Canada (in Ontario, near Detroit) in 1857. Thomas was raised in the Church of England, but switched to the Swedenborgian faith, and is the earliest Swedenborgian that I know of, in my ancestry.
My father was born in Canada, and lived in Boston, Detroit, and other places, but I had no idea why, until I learned a little bit of the family history. His family was from Canada and then Detroit. As a Swedenborgian minister, he moved from one parish to another.
And of course there are family stories that add a little color:
My father used to tell us about trading his Indian motorcycle for a Jeep right before his platoon bugged out as a huge storm rolled in. My grandfather and his identical twin topped the charts in wrestling in college. My grandmother went to college at age sixteen. Her father patented a horse shoe design. During the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he and his family carted their belongings to the shore of the lake, and buried oil paintings in the sand to keep them from getting burned. A portrait of his grandmother, the paint blistered, hangs in my sister’s house. An earlier ancestor of his, according to one account, was shot while riding a horse in the American Revolution.
I remember little things about my childhood. I learned to ride a bicycle in the Hinsons’s back yard, in Webster Groves. There was a hill above the house, and a driveway to one side leading down to Eunice Avenue. Once you started down the hill, you had two choices: crash into the house, or ride, and steer to the driveway. I rode.
The Watts lived two doors down from the Hinsons. We used to put on plays there, for the neighborhood. I was Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. The Peys lived in between. The coolest thing about them was that they had round cardboard boxes of Quaker corn snacks. Once or twice a week the bread truck stopped at Geggus, the corner store, then stopped at our house. My mother bought racks of outdated bread.
One day I came into the house, screaming, “Mom! There’s a huge snake in the yard!” And she said something like, “Yes, honey. Go tell your brothers.” The black rat snake they retrieved measured in at five feet eleven inches. (Just to clarify, that’s what I meant when I said, “there’s a huge snake in the yard.”) I brought the snake to my kindergarten class for show and tell, and Mrs. Layman wouldn’t let me take it out of the cage.
When I was eight, I started to think about my place in the world. I was angry, and stormed out the back door and down the steps into the back yard – and ran right into the existential problem of identity. There was nobody behind me, caring that I had just stormed out. Probably nobody even knew. I was standing there, looking around, and the world just didn’t give a damn. So now what? I felt a little stupid, and realized I was going to have to figure things out for myself.
James Sturges watched his house burn to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. That kind of thing changes how you look at everything around you. It was the Great Depression that impacted my more immediate ancestors. My mother saved things. There was a box in the kitchen packed with rubber bands. There were boxes of plastic bags, can lids and screw tops, and twist-ems. The cabinet under the counter was packed with paper bags. In the basement were shelves and shelves of glass jars. My dad used an old set of window shutters to make a set of deep shelves in the basement to store boxes and crates of saved things. There were old bureaus lined up down there, packed with dowels, curtain rods and miscellaneous screws and nails. The space under the stairs was filled with collapsed cardboard boxes. Later, when they moved out of the house, the movers packed all of this into boxes and drove it up to my place in Maine, and I spent five years getting rid of it all.
The imprint of the Great Depression was passed along to me – and something from my immigrant ancestors from Dublin, and the Great Chicago Fire as well, I’m sure, although I couldn’t say exactly what. Where we come from stems from where our parents came from, and they from their ancestors in turn, back into the unknown past, which isn’t very far back. It all moves forward along the timeline, although we only see a little piece of it.
And the future? It moves and changes.
Photo: Thomas Woofenden and Catherine (Tyler) Woofenden, and children: Clara, Robert, Sarah, Esther, and Frank. Thomas and Catherine are my great-great-grandparents. Robert, on the left, is my great-grandfather.