Although I love breaking through ‘brick walls’ in my family tree, often, the greatest treasures come not from taking the tree back one branch farther, but rather in the most surprising places.
An Unexpected Gift
So often in doing family research, we can have such a laser-focus on finding that elusive ancestor, but what gems there are to be found by just having a conversation with a relative — especially an older relative with wonderful stories to tell of times before we were born!
This past week, I was blessed to receive a message at Ancestry.com from a man named Hyatt Cayton, who contacted me out of the blue to ask me if I was a descendant of Ira Whitford.
“Yes, I am,” I responded. “He was my great-grandfather.” This gentleman simply wanted to let me know that his father, Mr. Hyatt Kugler Cayton, had recorded an interview with my great-grandfather before they both died. My great-grandfather died in 1966, so this recording was made in the early ’60s on a reel-to-reel recorder.
I was dumbstruck. In a good way. A very good way. I never had a chance to know my paternal grandfather, as he died several months before I was born, and I also never knew his parents, as they preceded him in death.
Imagine what a joy it was when my son brought in the mail on Wednesday, and there in the stack of bills and advertisements was a brown kraft envelope from Mr. Hyatt Cayton with what felt like a CD inside.
I opened the envelope and read his letter in which he explained:
“Here is a little ‘back story’ on the recording. My father and I started researching our history in about 1948. That was before there were any portable recording devices for personal use. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, we were able to purchase reel-to-reel tape recorders. Dad was retired and in his 60’s at that time. He lived in Baltimore, Maryland. He made frequent trips back to North Carolina to visit family and do family history research. On those trips he took his recorder along and recorded many sessions with a lot of people. When he died, I became heir to the recorder and the tapes.”
He went on to explain his father’s method for recording the interviews, and explained who each person’s voice was on the recording. One of them was my great-grandmother, Mary Susan Wetherington, known by my father and his siblings as ‘Tutu.’
What a gift across the generations thanks to Mr. Cayton’s father’s desire to document family history, and to Mr. Cayton’s desire to reach out to a descendant of the man on the recording and offer to send a copy.
Conversations connect us
In the past, I’ve written on this site about the importance of researching family history. Lately, I’ve spent a great deal of time working feverishly with a cousin to sort out a mystery relating to a shared ancestor, so I’ve done even more research recently than usual.
One of the things that has given me the most joy, however, is not found on paper, but rather is carried on the voices of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. Family history.
When Mr. Cayton contacted me last week about the recording of my great-grandparents, it dawned on me that recordings I’ve made in the past — and continue to make even to this day — of my grandparents, might one day be a real treasure to future generations. I’d made the recordings of myself just talking to my grandparents about their recollections of childhood and their parents, and society when they were growing up, more to create something for my own child, and Lord willing, his future children and grandchildren, but hadn’t really thought about my cousins and their future heirs and how they might be blessed to hear ancestors they have never met.
Whether the conversations get recorded, or not, the most important thing is to talk to your family members. After all, how much time do people spend actually talking to their family members these days? Or is most interaction with family members not actually done in person or talking on the phone, but rather via Facebook?
There’s something to be said for family members visiting together in person. Conversations take turns they often might never take in a different medium.
When I sit down in the den at my grandparents house — the house in which my grandfather was born in 1935 — we almost always talk about family, and family history. And almost without fail, my grandfather might say something that reminds my grandmother of something, which will take the conversation down a whole different and interesting path. The challenge isn’t getting them to talk, the challenge is getting them to take turns talking, because they both have so many great stories and wonderful things to say!
I’m hoping sometime in the near future to sit down and record conversations with my great-uncle and my great-aunt, both children of my paternal great-grandparents, to see what recollections they have of their parents, and of the tiny community where my dad’s side of the family have lived for close to three centuries. I also have some distant cousins I’ve recently met online that I look forward to visiting with, maybe not to record the conversation, but to just talk and share family stories and photos.
Maybe this article will be an inspiration to you to go visit with your family members and just talk to them. It doesn’t have to be a holiday or a special occasion. It doesn’t even have to be a close relative. Just go communicate with people — in person — away from Facebook, and see what treasures can be found in conversations with your family.