It has been said that we share this planet with three types of people. There are those few whose purpose in life appears to be a primal urge to make things happen. Then there is a larger group, those who are content to follow those who make things happen. Finally, there appears to be a substantial number (and I suspect that most of us fall into this latter category) that are happy enough, when everything is over and the dust has settled, to simply ask, “What happened?”
We must not underestimate the importance of this latter group, because from its ranks come the historians. In our case most of us are family historians, those who have taken on the task, not only of searching out the history of our families, but also the much more difficult work of recording the memories of our family members, both past and present. Unless we are fortunate enough to have ancestors that had been genetically programmed to write diaries, we must salvage what we can and ask our living relatives, “what happened?”
Occasionally a situation occurs in each of our lives when we are absolutely sure that we are making memories. Nevertheless, in reality one can only verify these occasions by attempts many years later to look back and hope we can recapture a perspective. We must also admit that most of the time we have no idea of when or where we are creating memories, either for ourselves or for others.
When my ancestor, Robert Titus, landed on the North American shore south of Boston from England in 1635 with his wife and two children, he left behind in England a younger half-brother, Silas, who was later destined to join the event maker group. Silas became an ally and friend of King Charles I, and tried to engineer Charles’ escape from Carisbrook Castle where he was imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. The escape plan failed, Charles I was executed, and Silas later became part of the court of King Charles II. There was no family historian available to record these events, but fortunately 15 letters from Charles I to Silas survive to tell at least part of the story. The downside is that there are no recorded memories passed on to us from Silas’s half of the picture. His letters to Charles were, of course, destroyed lest they should fall into the hands of his captors. Robert also has left us nothing pertaining to his adventures in the New World.
Some memories come down to us, but they must be pried carefully and patiently from their owners. The poem below was written by my 10th cousin, Phyllis Pearl (Sterling) Smith. Like thousands of other 10th cousins, I have never met her. The subject of her poem, her grandmother, Caroline Elizabeth (Cara) Fellows, was born in 1860 at Cahaba, Dallas Co., Alabama. Cara’s father, Thomas Skelding Fellows, was a watch repairer, born in 1817 at Troy, New York. One wonders, when he set out in 1865 with his wife Frances and five year old Cara, on the journey by wagon westward to Kansas, did he give even a passing thought to which one, if any, of his little daughter’s early memories would endure through the girl’s entire life?
Don’t ever try to tell me ghosts don’t speak.
I heard a child of ninety years ago
speak as plain as day. Dulled by Missouri heat,
we sipped iced tea, plied paper fans below
black walnut trees, now half a century old
and planted by my husband’s father. We,
the rootless ones, had brought our young to meet
their great-grandmother. Such fragility
could not last through the year. In voice
as weak as old leaves rubbed together, every word
said, “Time has come full circle,” and she told
our children tales that we had never heard.
Forgotten, now, the long calm middle years,
preserved in leather album on the shelf
like Mason jars of fruit she used to can.
She came at last back to her earliest self.
The laden wagon swayed beneath her yet,
leaving plantation home for Kansas plain,
her treasures sold before the trek began.
Her father, pressed by fate, himself in pain,
bereft by war, ignored his daughter’s tears.
And now a little girl looks through old eyes
– a five-year old. With anguish and regret
“He could have let me bring one doll!” she cries.
You see, most of our memories are destined to pass away with us, unless we have an opportunity to give them to someone for safekeeping. That someone can very well be one’s family historian. In the case of Robert and Silas Titus nothing remains of them to even guess at their personalities, although their abilities can be partially portrayed through a few documents that have survived the ravages of time.
Some memories at first glance seem only important to those who own them. This appears to be the case with grandmother Cara. Yet, when I first read the last lines of her granddaughter’s poem I was immediately caught with Cara’s memory and emotion; that resentment that she had held inside her for every one of those 90 years, until one day she just had to say it. “He could have let me bring one doll!”
Oftentimes memories that others gather can become part of all of us in a different way. In 1790 William Cooper moved his family from Burlington, New Jersey to Otsego County, New York. With him, his wife and one year old son, were other families, seeking a new life and willing to carve one out of the wilderness that was then upstate New York. Roads were few, amounting to mere paths through then untamed forests. Encounters with the local Indians at the very least brought uncertainty. These memories must have remained with their young son, both during the journey and afterward as they prepared their homestead. His father, William Cooper was later appointed judge of the first court of common pleas for Otsego County in 1791, the year after they arrived in the town that was named after him, Cooperstown, New York. He was also Representative from New York in the Congress of the United States for the 1795-1797 and 1799-1801 sessions.
His son went on to enter Yale University in 1802 at the incredibly young age of 13, became a midshipman in the United States Navy in 1806 and married Susan Augusta Delancey in 1811. He wrote Naval History of the United States, then, after reading a British novel, put it down and said, “I can do better than that.” He, of course, was James Fenimore Cooper, author of Leatherstocking Tales, and The Last of the Mohicans. His memories and the accounts of the untamed forests and of the Indians that inhabited them have enriched us all.
There are things that we can do to prepare our own memories for survival. Equally significant, we will occasionally have a chance to create memories with our friends, our children and our grandchildren. Let us do our best to ensure that those memories will be good ones, and that they will be lasting. And, hopefully, some of them will be saved for our descendants.
I’ve titled this presentation On Making Memories. With a little reading between the lines, one can see that it also touched indirectly upon the necessary steps downstream from that point, to the recording and preservation of the data. In these days of political correctness and revisionist history it is especially important that we record and preserve our family histories, our memories, in a way that future historians will be able to look at our work and say confidently, “I can now tell you what really happened.”