I just finished reading The Distancers: An American Memoir, by Lee Sandlin, which is an extremely well written account of the history behind his great grandparents' old house in southern Illinois. The author gradually unfolds the personalities and lives of the elder relatives who lived there, many of whom were a regular part of Sandlin's life as a youngster. What struck me most was the realistic portrayal of the attitude children often have toward their elders: not questioning, but simply accepting who their family members are at face value, with all their faults and idiosyncrasies, while any strengths or aptitudes are usually taken for granted. Questioning, reasoning and approaching an understanding of our elders' choices and actions usually comes later in life, and it often happens too late for us to be able ask the relatives themselves about their experiences or intentions. And, that is what family history is all about: piecing together the purpose and meaning of our ancestors' lives in order to better understand them and ourselves.
I was never fortunate enough to experience living with my great aunts and uncles (or grandparents, for that matter), for extended periods of time. But, I always looked forward to Dad's two week vacation in August when the old Ford Ranch Wagon was packed up with suitcases and a twin mattress in the back for my sister and myself to sleep on. Almost yearly we traveled from the Bay Area to Salem, Oregon, where we stayed at Aunt Phyllis's house and made the endless round of visits to my grandfather and his many brothers and sisters, as well as a few cousins.
Everywhere we went, modest dining room tables groaned with coffee and milk, sandwiches or pastries, wonderfully diverse jello or pasta salads, and best of all--homemade doughnuts. As a child, I too was content to observe and wonder, never asking questions of my elders. If I had, I might have been ignored, or at best, received a thinned-out version of the truth for an answer, or worse--been teased for asking in the first place. We children knew our place! So now that these elders are gone, I am left to piece together their lives out of a desire to know how they coped with everyday problems, and where they reaped their rewards. I also want to know simply because I care.
The following photograph of my grandfather (front and center) and six out of his
nine siblings was taken in in 1967, following the funeral of their
sister, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad. Thea was the first of the ten
siblings to pass on. They are all departed now, the last being Oral Johnson in 1996.
As Sandlin stated in his memoir: "all stories of the past are sad." This
photo is sad, too, not just because of the event that created it (a funeral), but because of the
shared anguish among close family members after the loss of a loved one, and having to come face-to-face with the harsh reality of their own mortality in the process. The shell-shocked look on many of the faces--my grandfather's especially--continues to haunt me.
Still, I cherish the photo because it represents my grandfather with most of his brothers and sisters together in one place, with everyone appearing exactly as I remember them during the
photograph was shot with a Kodak Instamatic camera, which was all the rage in the
mid-1960s. The subjects posed inside my great aunt Mabel Johnson's living room,
on Ellis Ave. NE in Salem. I cannot fail to recognize the vintage dark
red upholstered chair that Mabel always kept by the front door, and I owned it
for a time after her death in 1983. Grandpa must have been given the only seat for the portrait because he was the eldest sibling present.
Most of the family lived in Salem, Oregon or the surrounding area, but three of the brothers, Bennett, Odin, and Oral, lived in Minnesota. Only Oral
Johnson was able to make the trip to the west coast for the funeral. Thea, the departed, lived in West Salem with her husband Carl Humberstad
in a tiny and immaculate white clapboard house with baby pink trim.
The people in the photograph were a
big part of the backbone of extended family that I knew and loved as a youngster. I miss them all, and if I could have one more chance to see them, there would be a thousand questions for each and every one. All stories of the past may be sad in some way, mostly because they are from a time that is irretrievably lost to us, but that does not mean they should be ignored or avoided. The reason why some of us spend so much time researching family history is to rediscover the experiences of those who paved life's road ahead of us, winding through all of its mysterious peaks and valleys. Though their time has passed, there is joy and honor to be celebrated from their journeys.