By Barry J. Ewell
Episode 1, entitled Tell the Children About Me of the Series Journey of Genealogist, Journey of Genealogist, Barry J. Ewell shares a few of his personal experiences as genealogists.
My journey began on August 3, 1998.
Before I say anymore, I’d like to share with you a personal experience about how I began my journey as a genealogist.
I became a genealogist on August 3, 1998. That is the day my mother died. There were three events that would follow in the ensuing six weeks that would inspire me to begin a life focused on family history, sharing knowledge, and helping others.
Mom died from a horrific lymph node cancer. I had gathered with my brother and sister to discuss with my mother her desires for what we all thought would be several months of life and to help her put her affairs in order. She entered the hospital the first day of my arrival and died three days later.
Her passing was one of the more spiritual and yet ugly experiences of my life. I was very sad to see Mom go, but grateful that her suffering was over. While at her side, I saw the manifestation of God’s intervention and love for one of his children. Away from the bedside, it was contention at every turn with one my sister. She knew everything about what Mom wanted and needed, and the only opinion and decision that matter was her own. Even as we sought to help Mom write her last will and testament, all that could be heard was, “That’s mine.” It became an argument over things. As far as I was concerned, things were not important; I had all I needed and wanted. I just wanted there to be peace and an amenable resolution to helping Mom.
Experience 1#1: Preserve the Record. Following Mom’s passing and funeral, my brother, sister, and I met for one last time in Mom’s front room. My sister’s parting words were direct and expected, “You are welcome to stay the night. Whatever is left when you leave is mine.” My sister pointed to pile of things that were in the middle of the floor and instructed my brother and I that we could take what we wanted. Whatever was left would be given to the thrift store. And then she left to go back to her home.
As soon as she left, my brother and I knelt in prayer and gave thanks to our Father in Heaven for our mother and asked a blessing that relationships with our sister would heal in time. Upon conclusion of the prayer, there was a sense of serenity. We were both emotionally and physically drained. Where do you begin? I was standing in my mom’s home. It’s just things. Mom had been a waitress at the Las Vegas Horseshoe Club for over 40 years. She raised three children by herself. I always loved coming home, just to be with her. Now here I was, standing in the middle of her front room, feeling lost and in need of direction regarding where to begin. And in almost that very moment, there was clarity. My mind filled with two thoughts#1: 1. This would be the last night that I would ever stand in this home. 2. Preserve the record. Gather photos, certificates, letters, and other related documents that would tell the history of my mother.
I knew I needed to follow the direction I was receiving. My next thought was, where should I begin? Within seconds, the thought came. I was first led to look in a cupboard in the kitchen where mom kept coloring books. I couldn’t see anything. As I began to close the door, I felt the need to look again. In the back was a bank pouch with unused check registers. I pulled it down, and inside was an envelop with pictures from Mom’s early childhood. I was next guided to a drawer in the kitchen where I found, in a plastic bag, key photos of Mom’s life.
Next I was directed to spare bedroom dresser. As I went through the drawers, I found them all empty except for a larger drawer that Mom had filled with paperback books she had read. I pulled out half the books, became frustrated, and put the books back in drawer, thinking that there was nothing there. As I stood to leave, the thought came, look again. I returned to the drawer again and removed all the books. At the bottom of the drawer was a sack filled with Mom’s important papers, such as her birth certificate, marriage license, photographs, and other documents.
Throughout the night, I went from room to room having the same experience in each room, knowing where to look. My brother and I worked and packed until just before dawn. I privately asked for the last time, where else should I look? The answer was a total sense of peace. We were done.
As the morning progressed I became grateful that I had heeded the promptings of the night before, as my sister made it clear that my brother and I were no longer welcome in what was not her home and that we would never receive any of moms pictures or records.
Experience 2. Tell the Children about Me. It had been 3 weeks to the day since Mom’s passing. During that night, I had a dream where I heard a knock at the front door. When I open the door, I saw my mother. She asked me to take a walk with her. We came to an outdoor café where we sat down and ordered a soft drink. During the conversation the followed, Mom reached out and held my hand and said, “Barry, will you please tell the children about me?”
I replied by saying, “Of course mother, I will do that.” At that very moment, I awoke. I woke my wife and told her of the experience. We both found the dream somewhat odd since during my mother’s life, whenever she was asked to tell us more about her life, she would usually respond with, “It was hard; that’s all you need to know.”
I pondered the dream until it was time to rise to get ready for work, trying to make some sense of what I had experienced. I had no answer so I discarded the experience as an interesting dream with little or no meaning.
Experience #1: Tell the Children about Me—Now. Three weeks passed. During the night, the same dream I’d had three weeks earlier began to unfold exactly as it had played out before. This time, however, when I was asked, “Barry, will you please tell the children about me?,” I responded with irritation in my voice, “Mother, I told you I would.”
Mom responded with an emphatic but raised voice, “Tell the children about me, NOW.”
This time I awoke immediately. My mind began to fill with names, with the instruction that I should talk to and record my interview with each person. I turned on the computer and began typing the five names as they appeared. At that point, I thought, well, if I am going to talk to these people, I should also talk to… and I began to brainstorm other names. Then my mind went blank. I felt the most empty feeling I had ever experienced. I knew I had gone beyond the bounds of what the Spirit wanted me to do. I immediately erased what I had added to the list and then knelt in prayer, asking for forgiveness and requesting that the stream of thought return. After about 20 minutes of prayer, the first five names reappeared in my mind, followed by five new names. When I was through, I had five people I knew and five that I didn’t. My instruction was to contact each person and conduct oral histories in regards to their relationship with my mother.
In the year that followed, I was able to meet with and record oral histories with each of the ten individuals. Each one of them was able to reveal a unique chapter of my mother’s life that spanned the 65 years she had lived. In addition to the oral history, I received memorabilia that represented their relationship such as cards, letters, photographs, documents, and more.
Oh how I wish I had come to know the mother they described. I had come to know her through the eyes and experiences of her friends and family. It was the first step in what would become connection to the generations before me.
The meaning of “Tell the Children about Me.” In the beginning, interviewing Mom’s friends and family was the limit of my intended participation in fulfilling the solemn promise I had given my mother in my dream. Genealogy and family history were not in my vocabulary. In fact, whenever I heard the words, I would usually find a good reason to leave the room.
Since August 3, 1998, I have had countless experiences that have forged my journey as a genealogist. From conducting oral histories to searching the lands of my ancestors, I have become the keeper of the record. It is much more than searching for names and connecting one generation to the next. It’s realizing that I am the total sum of all those who came before. I am a chapter being written in a legacy to which I will humbly add my name.
As the keeper of the record, I seek to fulfill my role by carefully using the time I have available to record, manage, organize, extend, and expand my family tree. I have come to understand what mother meant when she asked me to “tell the children” about her. It’s simply that she and those who have tasted the close of mortality live on. The family tree is a living bond that extends beyond time. And no one in that link shall be forgotten.
Since that very first experience, I’ve learned
- about records—the information they contain, where to find them, and how to use them;
- about technology and its use in research and preservation;
- to use and preserve countless forms of data and file formats;
- to search in the field on the Internet, in libraries and archives, and conduct interviews;
- about my ancestors, their roots, their records, their times and season;
- to tracked my family through states and counties, and found their records;
- my place in the link of time; and
- each individual ancestor contributed in some way to my very existence.