Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Are You From?

What do you know about the lives of your ancestors?

I'm not talking about 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, but your grandparents and your great-grandparents. What were their lives like, what about them would surprise you, and what about you would surprise them?

Some of us know a bit – he had red hair, she taught herself to play the piano, he was a produce vendor, she bought expensive shoes, at least until her first child was born. Some of us waited too late to find out their stories.

“Tell me who you are,” I whispered to a photo of my great-grandfather. He chose not to reply, so I scanned the image and moved on to the next mystery. As I sort through my belongings in preparation for moving, I’ve spent a lot of time going through old photos. I spent the day scanning some of those photos, trying to put them in some logical order.

“You should always write the names of the people in a photo on the back,” my father used to say whenever I brought home prints of my pictures. (Usually, my photos were of animals, so identifying them was not crucial.) “You think you will remember, but you won’t.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t practice what he preached, and I have – had – boxes of pictures of people I cannot identify, friends of my parents, friends of friends of my parents, maybe even distant relatives. I had no idea who most of the people in the photos were.

Of course, I recognize my relatives, but I know little about their lives. That seems sad. We owe who we are today in part to those who came before us.

On his splendid Writer’s Almanac web site last week, Garrison Keillor wrote a moving piece about Isabel Allende’s response to the news that her grandfather was dying. Allende was in exile in Venezuela and could not return to Chile to be with her grandfather. “So she started to write him a letter, to reassure him that she wouldn't forget all his stories and memories,” Keillor writes.

That letter expanded into a 500-page book manuscript that was Allende’s first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” published in 1985.

Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe if we started writing letters to our ancestors, we could slip inside their lives, add to the facts we already know and discover what sort of lives they might have lived.

Or, if a 500-page letter sounds too intimidating, consider reading “Where I Am From,” a rich poem by George Ella Lyon. You will find it on her web site at You can even listen to her read it.

Where am I from?

One day in 1980 I was driving the back roads of Kentucky, looking for a big white house that squats on a tobacco farm, a house where my mother Bonnie spent much of her youth in the company of loving relatives, a house where I got to chase chickens, talk to cows and pump my own drinking water during a few summer visits when I was a child.

That day in 1980, I was 32, and had been out of touch with the Kentucky relatives for at least a decade. Driving along an unmarked road, I recognized the house right away. I stopped at the gate, opened it and drove up the long winding drive. I parked in front of the house.

As I got out of the car, a woman about my age stepped out on the porch. She took one look at me and then turned back to yell through the screen door, “Mama, come quick! It’s Bonnie’s girl!”


  1. Hi Patricia,
    You seem to be traveling forward and backward at the same time while dispatching the present-it must be an exciting time for you-enjoy.

  2. I do genealogy, and have written my parents' and my grandmother's biography. I urge everyone to get a tape recorder and interview them while they are alive - because once they are gone, an invaluable resource is lost forever.
    and as for pictures = I begged my mother-in-law to label hers, but she would say "my Engrish no good." I told her is she would label in Japanese, I could always get them translated. She didn't do it, and on her death, her kids threw away hundreds of pictures of people they couldn't identify. So keep up the good work