Sunday, October 5, 2008

How it's supposed to be

Beginning this blog just five weeks ago, my expectations were simple. I wanted a venue in which to preserve, for my children, the stories I have discovered through my genealogical research. I figured my immediate family would follow it regularly because I have the blog program email them every time I post a new story. They have no choice. I would guilt my close friends into reading it simply so they would know what I am so excited about all of the time. But in these few weeks something truly amazing has happened, and my view of the possibilities of this little blog has expanded one hundred fold.

You see, people I have never met are reading MY blog. And these people are telling other people to read it. And these people are deciding it’s time to reconnect with cousins they haven’t spoken to in decades. When cousins from all over the country decide to reconnect, they recount memories of their youth, share stories, and add their own very unique perspectives on family members and events. In a 28 Sep 2008 email, shortly after I published my Grandmother Ruth’s War Diaries piece, my father wrote, “Your blog is having an amazing effect in reuniting me with people I haven't seen in years!” The power of the internet is beyond comprehension.

I quickly asked my dad to put into writing the story of how he and my Aunt Kitty reunited with a beautiful photographic portrait of my grandmother. It is the story that I use when I address a new class for genealogy education. It is a powerful example of human nature that drives us to know and understand where we come from, and the will to preserve the objects and stories we know are important for our family’s (or another family’s?) continued legacy.

The following account, therefore, was written by my dad just a few days ago. It’s been an oral history until this time. I still want to use this site as a venue to share stories about the families I research that my children will grow to appreciate, both on my side and my husband’s. But I do understand the possibility of expanding this mission to include outside sources. If you have information that supports any published post or new information that I can research and develop, please feel free to email me ( Thank you for your continued interest.

Gary Martin writes,

“During the summer after my father passed away in 2000 at age 92, my sister Kitty and I embarked on what we called a roots tour. The long road trip to West Virginia was inspired not just by Alex Haley’s book entitled Roots, but by the treasure trove of genealogy material dad left behind. Being age 62 and 58 at the time, we realized that this valuable material would go to waste unless we researched and organized it in a way which would gain the interest of our own children so they would carry on the effort in the future. The material included pictures of people we didn’t recognize and letters from people we didn’t know.
Both my mother and father were born and raised in West Virginia, a territory which split off from Virginia and achieved statehood as a result of the Civil War. Life in the southern part of the state where my mother lived continues in the southern manner retaining a strong dialect and many southern traditions. Morgantown, in the northern part of the state where my father lived, is more similar to nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio in terms of language and customs.
There are many aspects of our trip which are worthy of being recorded. But this first note will focus on our experience in Bancroft, West Virginia searching for and finding the home of our maternal grandmother, Anna Belle Osborne:

Bancroft West Virginia - Returning After 50 Years
For those who haven’t ventured off the main roads in West Virginia, it can be a frightening shock to knock on a door expecting a friendly welcome only to come face to face with someone who tells you to get the hell off his property. People living in West Virginia's hills and hollows don’t like strangers, especially those who don't drive a pickup truck. Even worse is a shiny new foreign car with out-of-state plates. They’ve been known to grab a shotgun to emphasize their point. Those of you who are old enough to remember the movie “Deliverance” can appreciate this.
Although not in the very rural part of the state, Bancroft has always been an extremely poor community with many residents at the poverty level or below. After taking a few wrong turns, we found the home where our grandmother once lived and debated the next step. It looked like no one was home so I voted for turning around after taking a few
pictures, My sister, being much braver, said no way, we must knock on the door. Standing back to permit a quick retreat to the car, I watched as she climbed the stairs to the porch and knocked.

The fellow who came to the door was wearing a vest with bullet pouches and looked like we awoke him after a long night out on the town. His scary demeanor and voice reflected this. When Kitty mentioned that we were the children of Anna Belle Osborne’s daughter Ruth he became even more agitated and vocally loud. He warned us “not to move an inch” and that he had to get something from the barn. As he disappeared from sight I was inching my way back to the car trying to remember how to set off the emergency alarm.

Kitty looked scornfully at me as only a sister can so I reluctantly stayed expecting the worst and wondering if my estate plan was up-to-date. After several minutes he came back on the porch holding a dusty picture in a battered frame. It depicted our mother in her late teens or early 20s. He introduced himself as "Bill".

Bill's whole appearance had changed. Earlier he was loud and threatening, now he spoke softly with tears in his eyes. He gently cradled the portrait before handing it to us saying that the picture had been in a corner of the barn for decades since he first purchased the property. His buddies teased and gave him a bad time for not throwing it out. His response to them was that some day someone will come knocking on the door and I’ll be able to give it to them as a gift. At this point all three of us were crying while standing on the porch looking at the picture and trying to carry on a conversation through the tears and sniffles.

Afterward he took us on a tour of the home and accompanied us to the local cemetery where we found the grave site of our grandparents and other relatives. We exchange Christmas cards and continue to feel very humble in the face of this once in a life time experience.
Even though this event occurred eight years ago I remember it as if it happened yesterday and think of it often. I'm convinced that the interest in genealogy and esteem for ancestors common in the south is the reason Bill held on to the picture for decades and withstood the ridicule of his friends. As an example, he told us that his father took responsibility for keeping up the grave sites of the families' relatives and stressed to him as a child that he would someday bear the same responsibility. Bill visits the cemetery monthly for this purpose and has talked to his young son about taking over for him someday.

Without getting too philosophical, the event is a microcosm of our everyday lives. So many positive life changing events happen by accident instead of thorough planning. If we hadn't stopped for lunch before searching for our grandmother's home, we would have missed out on this conversation with Bill and never known about his treasure. What if I had based my opinion of this man solely on my first impression? I would never have discovered the basic kindness of his character.

The lesson I took away from Bancroft is to get out of your comfort zone, forget your preconceived notions, and aggressively put yourself in a position to be surprised. It's difficult to do especially when getting older but more than likely the result will be a pleasant experience.”

1 comment:

Becky said...

As I well know, it can be difficult to go outside your comfort zone, to knock on the door or make that phone call, but the results can be so rewarding, as your father related. It was a wonder that the gentleman saved your grandmother's photograph. A very touching story. Thank you for sharing it.