Particularly in a week when people all over the country are filled with sadness because of the tragedy in Tucson, it is good to remember that this tragic circumstance is just a sliver of our American story. We are lost as a people if the only memories that continue on are of a shooting rampage in Tucson, the horror of 9/11 or the murder of the Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
These stories are important for us to learn from, of course, but equally important are the day-to-day doings of regular people. For these stories, we need look no further than our own families; it is these everyday stories that create the beautifully crafted and wondrous patchwork of our past.
"People often start investigating their family history because they want to know where their ancestors were during the Civil War, or World War I, or during the Depression," says Diane Haddad, managing editor of Family Tree magazine. "They start out with the feeling that their family members probably weren't a 'big deal,' but they soon learn that the small details they uncover are what create a complete history."
One Story Came to Light Because of a Dog
Last April I first encountered a family who perfectly exemplifies how each of us can provide essential pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that is America when I visited the Catoctin Aqueduct with Journey through Hallowed Ground. While visiting the lock house near the Aqueduct, I was presented with a booklet of recollections of Lavenia Waskey (1911-1979), a young girl who grew up along the canal. As I began to learn more about the family, I found that Lavenia's story, written initially as a simple gift to her family, was brought to public prominence because of a dog.
"My mother's life began on a canal boat and when she got older, my grandfather became a lockkeeper in Lander, Maryland so my mother could go to school," says Maria Elana Brust, Lavenia's daughter. "As she grew older, my mother realized that she had had an unusual childhood, and as a gift to family, she wrote down her memories of that time of her life."
"I grew up near here but didn't visit the area often until the early '90s when I got a new puppy, a Labrador. We soon found that we both loved walking down near the Aqueduct and the old lock house along the C & O Canal where my mother grew up.
By this time, the town of Lander had a new resident who was gung-ho to get things done. George Lewis had retired from his job at Fort Detrick and moved to the area. "George was intent on rebuilding the Aqueduct and restoring the lock house, and because my Lab and I were down walking the area every day, I started helping out and telling him what I knew.
"One day I mentioned my mother's stories, and George suggested we publish it to give to people who visited the area. At first, it was used to help with fundraising for restoration of the aqueduct, but now that there are regular visitors to the area, the booklet of her reminiscences is available to anyone who stops by and is interested.
What emerges from Lavenia's recollections is the story of life on a canal in the early 20th century. We get a slice of life -- a bit about her father's work, her childhood, her own responsibilities of running the schedule reports up to the post office regularly. With her story, no schoolchild has to memorize any dates, nor will they have to study any great policies that came from Lock House 29; however, anybody who hears Lavenia's story cannot help but identify. Adults were all young once, and children have a natural affinity for stories of young people. In the process of learning her story, we gain a new richness about the story of transportation in America -- in the days when no one knew that railroads would soon overtake all other transportation methods.
Document Your Own Family Story
The message is simple. The ordinary life of today may one day seem extraordinary, so like Lavenia, the best gift any of us can give our families is to document our own lives as well as anything you remember about your family's past.
Family Tree magazine has online resources and suggestions: Ten steps to Start Your Family Tree. These are simple steps you can do a little at a time. One day, your own family -- and Americans you can't even imagine -- will be glad you took the time.
My story of the Waskey family became brighter and more important to me because Maria Elana's brother, Otis, who lives in Portsmouth, Virginia, found my initial mention of Lavenia's reminiscences in my blog post last spring. Through him, I learned how this all started as a simple gift a mother was leaving to her children.
This gift has meant a great deal to the Waskey family and they have continued the tradition of telling their story. Otis Waskey has taken the family tree on their father's side back to colonial days, and Maria Elana's grandson, now 19, was only seven when she began helping to restore the lock house. Says Brust: "There is probably no better way in the world to tell a child the family story than by having him right there, working right along side you."
For more stories of America's everyday heroes, visit www.americacomesalive.com.
Next week I'll tell you about a young couple who is busily documenting a house history -- a house they have now turned in to an inn.