A couple of years ago, my mom gave me the beginnings of an autobiography or family history that my great grandmother had written. She chronicles the family’s move from England (Leeds and London) to the United States, where they initially lived in Michigan. My great great grandfather was a pastor, and the family followed the needs of the church and communities, their lives pushing through the Midwest like a breeze across the fields. Small towns in Indiana and Illinois were home for a few years at a time, then circumstance would change and the family packed and moved again.
The way it’s written, it seems that Anne (I forget her name for now) expected whomever read it would know of her family, of these ancestors. That’s not the case. Where she grew up with three sisters and three brothers, our family has become decidedly smaller, and with that decrease in size comes a decrease in knowledge. Who is there to hold all of this information about us? We are few and have started families later. No one has had children in their early twenties. Instead, we wait. We grow up, we have children when things are more predictable and stable, when we are done being selfish and pursuing our personal goals. Now, there is my mom who has this knowledge, knows the stories of our ancestors, but how well has that passed on to us, her sons?
Perhaps in giving me these pages, she wants that history to live on, for me to say there was a great aunt named Mary Agnes, whom everyone called Birdie because when she was little she’d hold her mouth open, hungry like a little bird, and then years after they emigrated and were living in southern Illinois, Birdie came down with typhoid fever and died. They wrote Birdie on her gravestone. That’s what she liked to be called. That was her name.
When I read those words it caused me pain. I’d read about the ups and downs, but not of death. With seven children, not everyone is in the forefront of the picture. Birdie had receded for pages, and then she died, and the family stopped moving so much. There are so many cliches about home. Maybe one truth about home is that home is where you bury your dead. The family stayed in this town after Birdie’s death, even though my great great grandfather lost his position as the pastor. The town could no longer afford it. So they tried farming instead, but what do men and women from London know of farming? After a rough couple of years, they sold the animals and land, moved to East St. Louis, which was not to far from Birdie’s grave and began to settle down.