‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’
– Hamilton: An American Musical
Since I began writing about family history my focus has primarily been on my matrilineal heritage. There’s a very simple reason why: over the course of time, the women from that side of the family saw fit to write things down, to keep old love letters, to tell their oral histories. Sadly, no one thought to write down my grandfather’s side of the story.
So yesterday, when I was inspired to photograph a love quote with an antique quilt I thought how fun it would be to share the story of my grandfather’s mom and dad, George and Odessa Barr. Today, I set about the ambitious task of doing another photo shoot with a few little goodies added in (I’m no photographer, so bear that in mind).
I gathered my ‘props’: the quilt, a few books, a bird that my great grandfather carved and a photo of he and his bride shortly before they died. My photo taken, I sat down to find some stories of these two people, whose faces I remember only because I have seen their photographs. In my mind, we are forever poolside at a relative’s home in Southern Oregon, me just a little chub of a thing, and them, smiling and wrinkly and old. I think he is the same great grandfather who dubbed me ‘Whiskey’ because he liked that drink better than brandy. I think she gave me an old Barbie Doll, before Barbie even existed, her clothes dated, her body and head hard and cold.
And that’s really all I can tell you.
George and his wife, Norlyne Odessa Cummings (she only went by Odessa; it wasn’t until years and years after her death that we even knew she had a different name), are a vague mist in my mind. I know they existed. In part, because without them, I wouldn’t exist. Also, I have photographic proof. But their stories are mostly bookends of dates born and died, with very little in between.
This makes me sad. I want to know the story behind this quilt that belonged to them. It’s a Wedding Ring pattern. Was it made for them as a wedding gift? By whom? Or did she make it, not because of any deeper meaning but because she liked the pattern and those were the fabrics she had on hand, discards of old, worn clothing and flour sacks. Did she cry tears into this quilt, exhausted after a long day of caring for her husband and children, like I sometimes do? Did he lie sick under this quilt, while the woman he shared life with, nursed him back to health?
I will never know.
I can make up stories, and there’s certainly something to be said for that. Maybe the little I do remember is better than the reality of who they were, so I should be glad no one bothered to write their story down.
But I wish they had.
Because they endured. They were married for around 50 years. They raised 3 children. Surely, they had wonderful times together and sad times, too. I know so much, it seems from my grandmother’s side of the family, but can hardly even locate pictures of my grandfather’s.
And now he’s gone and I can no longer ask the millions of questions I have. I tried while he was still alive. But I got interested too late. Or I thought there would be more time. Death took him sooner than we expected so I turned to my grandma, hoping she could fill in the gaps, but dementia has it’s ugly grip on her. There is a chance, though. One of their three children is still alive and in good health. He even lives nearby. It’s time to set up a lunch date and write it all down, as much as possible, to fill in those blank spaces with stories of real people – people who lived, laughed, loved, cried, yelled, and stuck it out. I’d like to finally get to know them.
P.S. – For heaven’s sake (and posterity, too) write down your history. Write down your relative’s history. Just write. Otherwise, who will tell your story?