I get the same feeling researching my family’s history that some of my friends get when riding rollercoasters or the like; it’s a terrifying experience, but there’s no way they’re going to refuse to ride or get off once they’re on. And hiding somewhere behind that terror is a deep thrill.
I recognize I’m beginning to sound like a manaic. Let me see if I can explain.
I’m a complainer and a pessimist by nature. Not as bad as some, granted, but those traits are there and they aren’t perhaps the most flattering of my aspects. Despite my crankiness, I really do have a fantastically fairy-tale life; hells, I’m a funded PhD student in medieval history, I have a loving family (with their own litany of issues, but that’s normal), wonderful pets, and a spouse I love dearly. But I complain. A lot. Much more than I should.
Because when I start leafing through family history, I am so terrifically humbled it makes my insides crawl.
Just looking at my father’s mother’s side of the family, the Irish and Scottish side, I am met by a cast of characters–ancestors–who had lives difficult beyond my comprehension and yet, they kept on keeping on, as it were. The Irish–the Gavins and the McCabes– came over in the five years following Black ’47. It is clear they tried their hardest to hang on to their lives in famine-consumed Ireland, but finally had to make the terrible descision to leave everything they ever knew in the interest of their own survival. The McCabes went first to Glasgow, looking for work, and from there to the States. The Gavins sailed right from Ireland.
United States Census records from 1860 reveal both families had settled in to Western New York, at Niagara Falls, following work on the railroad. Leaving the port of New York for northern parts was another decision that probably saved their lives. While immigrants in New York City faced appalling mortality in over-crowded vermin- and disease-infested slums, those in rural Niagara Falls and the new city of Buffalo enjoyed fresh air and ample, albeit hard work. The amount of their children who lived into adulthood is testament to the vastly healthier environment.
But some children did die, and I can’t imagine, in the insulation of our modern medical knowledge, how heartbreaking it must have been to watch a child waste away or pass on in great agony. I vividly remember reading the death records of another branch of my family from the 1700s, and coming across a cause of death for a 12-month-old ancestor listed as, simply, “teeth.” I remember the creeping sense of horror as I realized the poor child had died from some sort of infection brought on by teething; it wasn’t difficult to imagine the anguish of his parents as the sick baby screamed and screamed in pain and fever for days and nights, and then grew ominously quiet.
Life and death stood out in sharper focus, it seems, for these people.
But beyond the suffering and the sadness, beyond the endless work of both the men and the women–several of my Irish male ancestors worked as “laborers” well into their sixties, and their wives raised full broods of children and ran their households–was surely the sense that if they worked hard enough, their children would live better lives that they. Although, according to U. S. Census information, none of the elder parents of the Gavins and McCabes in Niagara Falls could read or write, census takers note that all of their children were literate, and all attended some school as youngsters.
I owe a huge debt to these people. Huge. Their legacy makes me humble and nervous at once. All of their work and sacrifice has led to me. And the more I learn about their lives, the luckier I feel…and the more terrified to fail. I am the last of my line, a woman, and the only child of two only children. I am the end, the sharp, white-hot focal point of the entire family.
I stand on the shoulders of giants.