I started studying family history way too late. That is, by the time I really understood the significance and the value of knowing the bits and pieces of my family, some significant persons who held the story had already died. For instance, my grannie died in 1984, and took with her a thousand recollections of her childhood and her family. Granted, I would sometimes come over to my folks house from seminary for a weekend, and find myself trapped in Grannie’s room, because she “had something to talk with me about.” The something would often last for more than an hour, as she would recall her childhood and parts of her family, and the yellow dress she wore when she was ten, and her sister Alzina splashed mud on it and ruined it. Things like that. As a twenty-something, those talks felt more like a toll I had to pay before I could see the rest of my family. Now, I wish I had paid more attention, been more intentional about asking questions and putting all the fractured anecdotes in a more consistent story. Of course, Grannie was also the one who insisted we had an Indian princess in our background – even though native Americans did not use the word “princess,” and my later research, including DNA, there is 0% native American coursing through my veins. Still, what was lost? More than I can know.
The same happened with my dad. I was just starting to get into family history when we visited the folks in the summer of 1992. One evening, while standing in the kitchen, I asked Dad a question about his father. In that one and only significant time, Dad opened up and told me the story of Grandad and how he and Grannie survived in the Great Depression, and the details of carrying sandwiches and pies to sell to the folks at Omaha Power and Light for their lunches, which gave them enough money to buy their own food and the ingredients to make the next day’s lunch supply. And how he ended up getting the job of painting a structure at the plant, which then gave him an entry into a job of shoveling coal, and on until he earned a position as an engineer for the company – this coming from a fellow who left school at 8 years old.
Dad died the next summer. That was the only moment of hearing those stories, and of course now I wish I had possessed the sense of asking more questions, hearing more stories, and not having lost it all in death.
After he died, somehow his cousin Beth contacted me, as she heard, maybe from Mom, that I was interested in family history. Beth was the keeper of two of the family Bibles, as well as some other photos and things, and she knew her children didn’t want them, and would I like to have them. Sure enough, I became the steward of these beaten up, yellowed, fragile history books – at least the pages between the two Testaments on which were written births, marriages and deaths of two branches of my family, going back to the 1700s. They are treasures to me.
I took on the hobby of family history, and over twenty years later, I guess I am the go-to guy for learning about our past, especially when great nieces and nephews need to know background for school projects, or a sister wants to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (we would have more than a dozen individuals who fought then, as well as most every other war back to the Norman Invasion in the 11th Century. We were on the winning side…) The best breakthrough for my research came when I subscribed to Ancestry.com, a huge data base that is easy to work with, and uncovers hundreds of names, facts, relationships and more. Today I have a few thousand names and family tree branches that spread all over. You see, when you look at your parents, there are two history branches, of course, one generation back, and each of them had two separate lines, mother and father. That then gives you four branches, and then eight, then 16, then 32 and on and on. I have relatives coming to America both on the Mayflower, and also on ships in the 1630s, so there are a bunch of lines in my family history. I’ve also taken time to investigate Cheri’s family, and so we have found loads of folks there too – although sometimes it’s a little hard to pronounce their names. My family has “John Dow.” Cheri’s has “Petronella Sjunesdotter.”
The website, which keeps my family tree as a usable data base with nice graphics, also occasionally throws me an email, telling me what new family tidbit they have found, enticing me to go back online and spend a few hours researching things again. I have to be a bit careful that in finding all sorts of new family members from the past, that I don’t lose the one I’m married to, by ignoring her for hours on end. I usually work on it when she’s at work, now that I am in a retired state of mind.
Last night before heading to bed, I checked on emails, and there was one from the website. I of course opened it, and they told me they had discovered some photos taken of my great-great-grandfather, Orlando Serviss. He was born in 1849, died in 1907, so he only lived 58 years, fortunately long enough to help to produce my great-grandfather. Orlando, in his adult years, was a police officer in Grand Island, Nebraska. Being a policeman back in the late 1800s, when much of the Midwest was still pioneering and the streets were not even gravel, the work of maintaining law and order was pretty raw. There was one newspaper account of a robbery in town, and Orlando, in pursuit, ended up shooting one of the robbers, and it was all written up in very dramatic fashion. Orlando, from his picture, looked to be a kind of skinny guy, with a typical 1800s moustache, and greased back hair.
The photos that were apparently submitted by a relative, and then sifted out to the tree subscribers who listed Orlando as an ancestor, were, I believe, the most curious photos I’ve ever seen. In the two photos, Orlando is dressed up in his police uniform (now, this is not like Barney Fife on Andy Griffith – he looks more like one of the Keystone Cops!), and in the first photo, he appears to be knocked unconscious on some boxes by a couple of scurrilous criminals, who are busy going through his pockets, and trying to take the police badge off his uniform. Like I said, it’s a fascinating picture, until you begin to realize this wasn’t taken with a smart phone that someone grabbed out of their pocket. It would have taken someone with professional camera equipment, set up and framed and ready to shoot. When you also look more closely at the photo, you notice how neat and tidy the muggers are – almost as if they knew, or even were friends with the poor unfortunately police officer/victim.
The second photo tells us the end of the story. Instead of being robbed, and left to the elements, the photo shows us the now-standing, fully awake and powerful Officer Orlando, grabbing the two criminals by the scruff of their neatly ironed shirts, as he apparently thwarted the crime, and saved not only the town, but his own well-being as the keeper of justice in Grand Island. The ruffians look suitably tough and remorseful for their evil deed, and Orlando is steely-eyed, unsmiling as he does his duty.
The fun thing about the photos is that I know nothing about their origin. You can almost imagine the four friends – Orlando, the photographer, and the ruffians – deciding somehow that it would be great fun to pose a couple of photos showing Orlando in his civic duty, at first being attacked, and then, becoming victorious. When you realize it’s all staged, you have to ask, “Why?” Were things so slow in Grand Island? Was there some other purpose? Were they recreating an event that happened in the town’s recent history? The more I looked at the photos, the bigger smile I got on my face, seeing such hams at work, posing for the shots. I realized that there was my true family history. A bunch of comedians.
I believe we find out who we are both by spending time alone, observing where we fit into this world, and also by acquainting ourselves in the company of others, in the drama and the laughter that makes up life. One tragedy of the coronavirus semi-quarantine is that it tends to push us away from the others who help us discover who we are. We need to become very creative in making connections which bring a liveliness and an honest opening of our lives, still keeping safe. To open everything up will only bring more death. To shut it all down only brings sadness and isolation that robs us of life. Again, an intentional balance, with common sense safety is at least a path to the future so that someday we can be the family history that one of our descendants finds fascinating.
Word for the day: rorulent. Pronounced roar-ROO-lunt. It sounds like a lion is around the corner, but the word is actually as far away from that image as you can get. It comes from the Latin ros, or roris, meaning “dew,” like the drops of water you find on the grass or the flowers when it’s not November in North Dakota. It’s a springtime, early summer morning kind of feeling, as the word means “covered in dew.” It makes us think about fresh, open-the-windows for a while before it gets too hot, but let’s enjoy the wonderful aroma of that season. As I said, the image conjured in this word should not be considered when you are face to face with a northern November, and you realize that “dew” is a good five months away.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.