Tracing our ancestry is all the rage now, with kits available for about $100 in which we spit or swab our cheeks to learn about our origins. Often we find they are not what we thought, but with further study or with a bit of luck, we learn that maybe they are.
Recently, I met with 40 relatives and we shared stories. I discovered that some in the group want to remember all who have passed as “a sweet lady” or “a wonderful gentleman.” I like to remember the deceased as the complex people they were.
I am also teaching telecommunication workers on Blackboard, the second of a five-week series titled “Write Your Autobiography.” And I’ve paid for two DNA analyses to (1) learn if my biological parents are the same as my oldest sister (They are) and (2) to learn my roots (92 percent United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales; 2 percent South Africa; 2 percent Eastern Europe and others). I was puzzled by the South African link until I read about the Boer Wars and the Dutch who had settled there. I’ve visited many countries in Western Europe and in Amsterdam, I saw women whom I favor, as my grandmother would say, and men who look like my sons.
When we get of a certain age, we wish that we had asked more questions of the most elderly of our relatives while they still could recall their lives. With so much technology, we have no excuse for not recording their stories.
You might want to start with the oldest member of your clan. I want to tell you about my maternal grandmother, Viva Moore Adams, the only grandparent still living when I was born. Until I was almost 14 — except for brief family sojourns to Cincinnati, Louisville, and Charlestown, Ind., as my father attempted to improve our lives — I lived next door to her on the Cumberland River in Harlan County, Ky. She was born in 1895 and died in 1991.
She was the youngest in a large family from Pittsburg, Ky., and married William Stephen Adams when she was 15 years old. William died of heart disease in 1931, leaving her with four children. She never dated or remarried.
An eighth-grade graduate, Adams worked the Louisville Courier Journal crossword puzzle every day until they stopped delivering it in Harlan County. A rebel, she was one of a group that determined that the Cumberland Missionary Baptist Church was not to her liking, so she and others started the Central Baptist Church. She studied her Bible every day and taught the ladies Sunday school class. She was the church treasurer until a new preacher decided that finances should be in the hands of a male. When the Central Baptist Church introduced guitars and tambourines, she indicated that the new approach was not her sense of religion, and she quit going to church.
While her only son, William, flew B-17s in the European Theater during World War II, she worked for the Red Cross, wrapping bandages. And she was a leader in the organizations that are a part of the Masons, the Eastern Star, White Shrine, and Rebekahs, always chastising in the privacy of her home those who took leadership roles but did not “learn their parts,” as she termed it. She had a variety of evening gowns for special ceremonies and was in love with the camera, eager to have her photo taken at any and all occasions.
Tall for a woman of her time, at five feet, six inches, she wore what her grandchildren called “little high heels” and was up at the crack of dawn in those shoes, walking through the hall, the dining room, and into the kitchen, knowing that she was disturbing those who were still sleeping.
Two of her great-grandsons, my sons Lance and Quentin, still swear that she lived on tea, toast, little bottles of Coke and air, as they never saw her consume food — and they had plenty of opportunity to do so.
In the floods of 1977, she refused to leave her house and finally two men had to carry her out pack-saddle fashion. After all, how dare that Cumberland River get in her house!
When I was attending Cumberland College, she got very ill and was admitted to what was then the Benham Hospital. The doctors knew she had an infection, but couldn’t define where. At last, they determined it was appendicitis. She always felt that was something for young folks, not a person of her years.
When her oldest daughter Lurline visited from Texas, she always had a long list of jobs for Lurline’s husband, “that young man who is an electrician, don’t you know.” She had him in her attic wiring things, installing chandeliers, hanging paneling and doing all manner of work while she supervised, holding a bottle of Coke in one hand and making small gestures with the other.
She had two bookcases in her house, unusual for her time, and had read everything in them and much more. And she studied her lessons in her Sunday school quarterly until she knew them by heart. No one was going to trip her up with a question she couldn’t answer where the Lord’s words were concerned.
I’ll stop now, but I could go on and on. Have I convinced you of your need to interview the elders in your family and record their stories? Do you understand why I loved my grandmother?
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or email@example.com.