Sunday, February 18, 2007
Farmers, mostly, and baseball players
I've spent a lot of time lately pawing through all the old family photos, and a box at a time, running the best through the scanner. The picture at the left from 1920 shows the five sons of Brice Martin. That's my grandfather in the hat. I'm digitizing history for future generations, I tell myself, but sometime I wonder if I'm really doing it for myself. Every time I hit "save" I wonder if that's what I'm really trying to do - save all those faces and those memories so they can't fade, get torn, or just crumble.
Most of the people in these photos are strangers to me. I know their names and see family features in their faces, but that's it. I don't know much about their lives, what they dreamed of, whether they thought they were having a good life or going through hell. On my father's side, I don't even know where they came from. You can follow their tracks from southwest Missouri back through the Cumberland Gap to the Carolinas, but everything before that is still a mystery to me. Maybe somebody has done the research and has the full family tree, but damned if I can make the connections.
So why do I care? It's supposed to be an American trait to have no concern about your pedigree. And for the most part, I agree with that. I am what I am, as my boyhood hero Popeye would have philosophized it, and there are no inheritances worth arguing about in our family. We're all self-made. When you look through the census records, you find lots and lots of farmers, with the occasional grocer and cobbler thrown in for urban panache. There were a few who managed to earn a living playing baseball, even listing that as an occupation in the census. They had boatloads of kids, fought in all the wars, and tried to get ahead in small ways. Nobody did anything very amazing, or very disturbing. My mother joked that you didn't want to poke around too much in the family history, you might not like what you learn. Might be some horse thieves in there. I've never found any scoundrels, but that seems more likely than finding a royal lineage, or a Rockerfeller connection. (Of course, I've read that you only have to go back seven generations and we are all related; and if you dig deep enough we're all descended from kings - and scullery maids, too.)
So I look at the old photos and I wonder, and I root through the old hand-written forms that are (mercifully) available online these days, and I try to get a handle on what these people were all about. What motivated them to keep pushing west? What kind of life were they struggling for? And what were they fighting for when they went to war? When my grandfather held me in his arms, what kind of world did he imagine I would live in? And what does that give me to think about when I hold my grandson in my arms?