I’ve been thinking about family stories lately, in part because I’ll be on a panel at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference in March along with Rebecca McClanahan, Mary Blew, Suzanne Bern, and Sharon Carmack (“Turning in Their Graves: Researching, Imagining, and Shaping Our Ancestors’ Stories), but also because the most glorious thing happened last week; a distant cousin found me, a cousin I didn’t even know I had. She descended from the line of my great-great-grandfather’s brother. Ever since I did the research for my book, Turning Bones, I’ve been curious about my great-great-grandfather, John A. Martin, and the other family he must have had. In Turning Bones, after sorting through a passel of Martins named James and John, I speculate that John A.’s father must have been James Martin. Now, all these years later, a cousin I didn’t know I had arrives to tell me I was right. James Martin who married Nancy Fite, only one example of the number of times Martins would marry Fites over the generations.
When my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Gaunce Martin, died, John A. Martin married a young widow named Eliza French Phillips. He was 64 at the time; she was 28. John and Eliza had four children of their own, the last one being born in 1884 when John A. was 74. In Turning Bones, I imagine that there were family members who didn’t exactly approve of the marriage. My new cousin tells me such was the case. She tells me that some of John A.’s sons moved away from Lawrence County, Illinois, angry with their father because of the marriage. My great-grandfather, Henry Martin, stayed. He married and had two sons. The older one was my grandfather, George William Martin, named after one of Henry’s brothers who was one of John A.’s sons who moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, some eighty miles away from Lawrence County.
In 1917, that George W. Martin, wrote a letter to The Sumner Press, one of a series of letters they were collecting from former residents of Lawrence County. In his letter, George W. points out that he is 75 years-old and that he and his brother Jackson and their wives (both of them Fites) left Lawrence County in 1881. At this point in the letter, George W. gives into melancholy:
Jackson lost his wife in 1910. We live about 10 miles apart. My wife took down in the spring of 1913 with heart and kidney troubles. She was under doctors care about 30 months. On September 2, 1916, her spirit took flight to God who gave it. She was a good woman and the best to me there was in the world. I feel very sad and lonesome. No place feels like home to me. I have a family living with me. They are very good to me, still they don’t make it feel like home. I had rheumatism all last summer. Feel stiff and sore yet, still can’t get around very well.
“No place feels like home to me.” My heart breaks when I hear my ancestor say this. It makes me think about the stories that people carry toward the ends of their lives. How I long to unburden them. If I could write a different story for them I would, but, alas, the facts are the facts. When you unearth your ancestors’ stories, you’ll be awash in numbers: birth dates, death dates, census figures. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone—or they’ll find you—who remembers the tales passed down through the generations, those stories of incredible joy or heart-numbing sadness, those stories of family secrets and anger and want. You’ll end up with a story that the numbers can’t give you, the story of people and how the lives they have may not be the ones they always wanted. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the voice of an ancestor come to admit, “No place feels like home to me.” If you’re smart, you’ll preserve that voice, respect it, understand the hard-earned wisdom that it is. As much as you may want to hide it—as much as you’ll want to bless that ancestor with grace—you can’t without demeaning everything his life has been. He’ll be the one talking; when we write our families’ stories, we have to learn to listen.