The Sky Pieces

This is not an Independence Day blog. It’s actually about genealogy and the preservation of history.

In genealogy, we strive to remember. We take pieces of an infinite puzzle and struggle to fit them together into a picture that reveals something of our heritage. We write down names and dates and connect people with one another. If we’re really good, we may connect faces in photographs, as well.


This morning, in my attempt to write about the fellows at the coffee shop, I listened to stories of the old buildings downtown. Some are still standing, many others have come and gone. The men remembered the buildings, their names, their owners, the businesses they housed, whether they depended upon steam power, the first time they stepped inside, the last time they stepped inside, its color, its scent, its atmosphere and lighting, and how it was decorated at holidays.

It occurred to me once again: History dies with the passing of each generation.

Genealogy can feel infinite, I think, because it kind of is. I remember my viola teacher telling me years ago that he was “still learning” to play his instrument, even though he was a magnificent violinist from South Africa who had been Concert Master for many big-name Symphonies. There is always more to learn, he told me, because there is always “more music.” Genealogy is the same. No matter how many names on a pedigree, there is always more we can learn about our ancestry. There is always more we can learn about our ancestors.

And let’s be honest: Ancestors can be difficult. Elusive. Sly. Confusing. I’m sure they don’t mean to be (unless you’re part of my family–in which case, I’m pretty sure they mean to be!). What we miss about them, what we leave for the next generation of genealogists, becomes harder to uncover. Each generation is one more lifetime removed from the facts than the previous generation, and so details are lost; memories are faded; facts are forgotten. Births? Deaths? Marriages? Those things are relatively easy to come upon and verify. The stories are less so.

I think of my uncles who, like the fellows at the coffee shop, have lived rich lives and have myriad stories to tell. They make us laugh, but they also impart a heritage and culture that belongs not only to my family, but to the communities in which they have lived. What are the buildings they remember from their hometown? What experiences can they pull out of their memories faster than a snap of the fingers? With four of my five uncles now gone, I realize what time I’ve wasted. I realize what stories I’ve lost. I realize what a ridiculous thing it is to say, “I just don’t have time,” or “I can’t afford the trip,” or “I’m not really sure how,” — the last of which is my personal Achilles.

All of this is to encourage you–and to encourage myself.

Interview your oldest living relative.

Interview as many of your relatives as possible.

Ask questions more than names and dates.

Capture stories as well as facts.

And for that matter, I beg of you, genealogists!–don’t forget your own story! Write it down. Write it all down. It doesn’t have to be perfect or perfectly edited. But if you don’t share the stories of your life, if you don’t prepare it for future generations, the things you remember will also be lost. We take for granted that someone else will remember, but guess what? They won’t.

Case in point.

Folks who’ve lived in Manistee for years can tell you there was a store there called Dewey’s. It’s probably on an old city map at the library or archives. Town records can tell you when it was established, when it closed its doors for the final time; old newspapers can tell you what its hours of operation were, what products they sold, what the prices were. Those are wonderful elements to bring to a family story.

What you don’t learn from records is that we could walk there from my Grandma’s house. It was just a short jaunt down the road and around the corner. We used to love their olive loaf. I remember the smell of the deli there–in my childhood, before my aversion to fresh meat, I loved the smell. It didn’t stink; it smelled fresh and earthy. It was a treat for us to go to Dewey’s. I remember my Uncle Dave giving me a dollar bill one day–to go to Dewey’s and get a treat. A whole dollar! In the 80s, that was a lot of cash.  ‘But don’t spoil your dinner,’ he advised, ‘and don’t tell your Grandma.’

Maybe it’s not spectacular, but it puts an historical event (Dewey’s business) into context of a family and a culture. These pieces of sky blue give the puzzle its character and background. Allowing our relatives to pass on without documenting some of these things is akin to throwing away the sky pieces of your puzzle. If you only want the nuts and bolts, names and dates of your family history, and you throw away the sky pieces, don’t complain that your finished picture has no sky.

Don’t count on someone else searching and solving a section of the puzzle tomorrow that you could easily put together today.




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