Preserve your Family’s Stories by Telling Them

This year has given us all a lot to think about.

One topic that has been brought into sharp focus for me is my ancestors who lived through, and died during, the 1918 flu pandemic known as the Spanish Flu. You might recall that even though the year 1918 was associated with that flu outbreak, it actually spanned parts of at least three years including two full winters.

I know that my father was in the Army at the time and very nearly died in the base hospital. In fact, he thought he was, in his words, “a goner.”

He wrote a few letters to his girlfriend, Virgie, who he later married. I was fortunate enough to inherit those letters after her death.

Otherwise, I would never have known anything at all about that time in his life – or even that he had that flu – let alone nearly died.

Looking at my family tree, all 4 of my grandparents were alive, but my mother had not yet been born.

However, all four of my father’s grandparents died during this time with a cause of death of “pneumonia” where we have a death certificate.

On my mother’s side, one of her grandparents was already deceased and the other three survived the pandemic. We don’t know if they were sick or not.

Other than my father, we know almost nothing about my ancestors’ lives during this time. What was it like? What were they thinking? Were they afraid? Did other family members or maybe people in the neighborhood die? Did they understand the infectious process?

So many questions.

The Gifts I Wish I Had

If I could reach back in time and ask my grandparents and great-grandparents for one thing, it would be the gift of letters – documentation of the daily hum-drum of their lives. Legacy letters. Newsy letters or a journal.  Maybe not so much telling me about the “big things,” although those too, but sharing personal aspects of their lives.

Let me put this in perspective. I have so many questions for my 8 great-grandparents that I desperately wish they had answered by leaving letters or journals. Something. Anything but silence.

  • Lazarus Estes was born in 1848 in Estes Holler in Claiborne County, TN and lived through the Civil War, dying in July of 1918. He would have been about 15 when the war broke out between the states. What was it like there? What did he do when there were battles within hearing of his family homestead? When the soldiers marched through the hills, confiscating all the food and livestock? How did they survive? And what about his sister, Elizabeth, sneaking into the soldiers’ camp and stealing their milk cow back? Is that true? His father, John Y. Estes was a POW – what was that like? Did they know he had been captured and where he was being held? Something happened right after the war when Lazarus’s father signed all of his household goods over to 17-year-old Lazarus. What was going on? Lazarus was the grandson of John R. Estes who settled in Claiborne County and the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, George Estes who didn’t die until just before the Civil War. George was reportedly at Valley Forge that terrible winter. Is that true? What was going on with George’s daughter, Susannah who never married, had 5 illegitimate children at a time when that was absolutely NOT socially acceptable, and went on to own all of George’s land. I’ve love to hear those stories. But there are no stories preserved today beyond vague references.
  • Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Vannoy was born in 1847 in Hancock County, TN, married Lazarus Estes, and died in Claiborne County in October of 1918. She too would have experienced the Civil War firsthand. It’s through the Vannoy family that we do have the story about the family taking the chickens and hiding in a cave to escape the marauding soldiers. Was that true? Where was that cave? Her father Joel Vannoy had mental health challenges, being committed to the Eastern State Mental Hospital in 1886s. How did that affect her and the family? What was he like? Why was his body dug up and reburied in a different grave? Why did Elizabeth lose so many children? Where did that oft-repeated story of Native American ancestors come from? Did she know that the “flu” was deadly dangerous before they both contracted it and died?
  • Joseph B. “Dode” Bolton was born in 1853 in Hancock County, TN and died in February 1920, just 12 days after his wife, both of “pneumonia as a result of the flu.” First, how did he get the nickname “Dode” and where did it come from? What did the initial, “B.” stand for? Where did your father’s middle name, Preston, come from? What can you tell me about the life of your immigrant grandfather, Henry Bolton? Were he and his brother, Conrad, really kidnapped on the docks in London? Or sold by an evil step-mother? Did Henry actually serve in the Revolutionary War, hand-selected by George Washington to care for his horses? Who were your grandmother, Nancy Mann’s parents? What was your great-grandmother, Mary’s surname, the woman married to John Harrold in Wilkes County, NC? Were they really Irish?
  • Margaret N. Clarkson or Claxton was born in 1851, married Joseph “Dode” Bolton, and died in 1920 in Hancock County, TN. I’d like to know if her middle initial was actually N. and if so, what was the full name and where did it originate? She too would have lived through the Civil War. Her father, Samuel Claxton/Clarkson was disabled with a bowel disease he caught during his Union Army service that eventually killed him. What does she remember about her father’s service in the Union Army? How did he cross the mountains to enlist? Was there pushback in the local community because he fought for the north? What is the truth about the haunted Rebel Holler, near where they lived, relative to the Civil War?

My Mom’s side was quite different. They lived in Northern Indiana.

  • Hiram Bauke Ferwerda, Ferverda here, born in Tierjerksteradeel, West Dongeradeel, Friesland, the Netherlands, immigrated at the age of 14 in 1868 and died in 1925 in Kosciusko County, Indiana. As a Mennonite family, they settled in northern Indiana among the Brethren where his father was a farmer and teacher. I would love to have a journal of his early life, his time as a baker’s apprentice in the tiny Dutch hamlet on a tiny canal comprised of all of 7 houses, up through and including the Atlantic crossing. His brother, Henry, seemed to have been tortured by epilepsy and resulting mental illness. Henry died a pauper in 1898 and was not brought home to be buried. I’d love to know more about what happened. How did Hiram Bauke, a Brethren man wind up becoming the town Marshall and a local banker? What happened?
  • Evaline Louise Miller was born in 1857 on a farm near New Paris, Indiana, married Hiram Ferverda, and died in 1939 in Leesburg. All 11 children lived to adulthood and all but two outlived her. I’d like to know about her early life in the Brethren Church. Her father, John David Miller, and grandfather, David Miller, homesteaded among the Indians along Turkey Creek in the 1830s and I’ve love to understand more about those early years. Did John David Miller actually serve in the Civil War, even being a Brethren? Who is the mystery Elizabeth Miller, David’s second wife who died in “the sickly year” of 1838? Four of Eva’s sons served in the military, unheard of for a Brethren family. How did that happen and what did the family think? Something occurred that caused Eva’s estate to be distributed unevenly, with some debts forgiven and agreed to by all. What happened and why?
  • Curtis Benjamin “C.B.” Lore was born in 1856 in Blue Eye, PA, and died in 1909 in Rushville, Indiana. The life of his father, Antoine “Anthony” Lord/Lore, and his early life are both shrouded in mystery. Curtis was married to Mary Bills when he left Warren County, PA, and didn’t divorce until after he married Nora Kirsch in Indiana. What happened? There were rumors of another son, other than the children from his first marriage. Were there more children, and if so, where and who? What happened to C. B.’s siblings and mother, Rachel Levina Hill after his father’s untimely young death? Was his father, born to Acadian parents Honore Lord and Marie Lafaille in L’Acadie, Quebec, Canada actually a river pirate? What happened to Antoine, and when?
  • Ellenore “Nora” Kirsch was born in 1866 in Aurora Indiana to German immigrant parents. She married C. B. Lore and died in 1949 living with her daughter in Lockport, NY. Unfortunately, I can’t find her death certificate, so I’d like to know her cause of death. I’d love to hear about life at the Kirsch House in Aurora, Indiana. Why did her father, Jacob Kirsch, deed the property to her mother, Barbara Drechsel? What about that lynching – and how exactly did Jacob lose his eye? Did Jacob serve in the Civil War, and was he actually summoned to euthanize an elephant at the Cincinnati Zoo? Did Nora know that C.B. Lore had been married before when she married him and that he was STILL married? Did she know about his children? What did she do when a son showed up at her kitchen door a couple of years after his death, looking for him? Who was that child? Nora married again, unhappily, after C. B.’s death and I’d like to hear more about that marriage. Nora was an exquisite quilter, with one of her quilts representing the state of Indiana in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. I so very much wish she had kept a quilt journal.

Creating and Preserving Legacy Stories

When we think of recording legacy stories, we often get bogged down by the enormity of writing something book-length. Think small.

Here’s an example. On Thanksgiving morning, when I woke up to smell those yummy Thanksgiving smells, even though we were having pandemic-style Thanksgiving meaning that we weren’t seeing anyone – I recalled another Thanksgiving from the past. In a minute, I’ll share that memory with you as I posted on Facebook.

Note that Facebook is sharing spontaneously in the moment, but we should have no expectation of permanence or being able to google and find something later – or ever for that matter. Facebook is not mean to be an archive of any sort. So write those memories down and publish elsewhere – a blog, a webpage, or send these stories to your family directly. Maybe all three.

Additionally, I attach my stories to my tree at both Ancestry and MyHeritage. You may say, “yes but they make money from subscriptions,” and that IS EXACTLY WHY THOSE STORIES AND YOUR TREE WILL SURVIVE into the future. Free things tend to disappear. Businesses are in business for profit, pure and simple, and in this case, that works to your advantage.

Print those stories, send them to people individually as well as electronically to historical societies. I put mine together in booklet form and donate to the Allen County Public Library. The Family History Library (LDS) accepts items as well.

Here’s my short Thanksgiving Facebook posting that I also pasted into a document with the photos below. I hope this provides a bit of entertainment and perhaps inspiration.

Aromas of Thanksgiving Past

The smells of Thanksgiving. A unique blend that reminds me of Thanksgivings past. I’m so grateful that Jim likes to cook, because I don’t. I did it because I had to. He does it because he loves to.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is the year mom accidentally got tipsy. I was about 13 or 14.

Mom didn’t drink. Not that she was opposed to drinking, it just wasn’t something she did much, if at all. Maybe occasionally socially.

My uncle and his family were coming for thanksgiving. Mom loved having family visit so she had been up cooking and getting ready for hours. We decorated for the holidays the day before their visit. Mom loved the Christmas tree too and was excited to put it up a couple of days early.

When Uncle Lore and his family arrived, he brought some type of adult beverage with him. I don’t remember what it was. I know it had alcohol in it because we kids had something else.

Mom hadn’t eaten at all that day. My uncle made her a pretty drink in a fancy glass and she began sipping it as she scurried around the kitchen.

Mom’s niece, Lore’s daughter, looked at me at one point and said, “I think your mom is tipsy.” I had never seen my mom tipsy – wasn’t even quite sure what tipsy was.

Mom always sang when cooking in the kitchen and sometimes kicked up her heels a bit with a dance step or two from years past, but that year she was singing and dancing both, across the kitchen floor as she cooked – and laughing. A lot. So were we. It was quite a raucous family sing-along.

We relieved her of cooking duty with hot things. By then, Mom didn’t much care.

After we ate, a meal she giggled through, Mom was tired and fell asleep with her glasses on – the first and only time she ever fell asleep at Thanksgiving.

We just covered Mom up on the couch in our midst. She smiled and shifted from time to time. I’m sure she could hear us because we all just continued to talk. And yes, we were bad and just might have decorated her forehead with a gift bow. I’m blaming my brother for that!

I fondly remember that quilt from her bed and that Christmas candle wreath in the window.

Mom was horribly embarrassed afterward. We teased her forever, of course. Our family was full of practical jokers and this opportunity could not be ignored. For those of you not a member of this kind of family – silence would have conferred shame, judgment and ostrification.

Singing together and Mom dancing around the kitchen is a very fond and joy-filled Thanksgiving memory for me – along with the ensuing joking and laughter for years after. It speaks to the humanness of everyone involved. Even if Mom was mortified that she had become a wee bit tipsy.

Your Legacy Stories

What fun stories come to mind that your descendants, born or not yet born, would be interested in hearing? How about nieces or nephews? What information about your life or that of your ancestors would you like to share with them? Think about how far back in time my grandparents or great-grandparents could have discussed with first-hand knowledge that was never preserved.

How about telling future generations about 2020 – you know one way or another, or maybe in multiple ways – it’s already legendary. How about sharing your perspective for posterity?

I’m positive there are heartwarming, amusing, or funny stories someplace in your family that desperately need sharing!

Don’t leave your family with a list of unanswered questions.

Give your family the gift of a family legacy story. It’s free to create and so much more personal than anything you could ever purchase – even if you could shop safely right now!

Happy holidays everyone!!

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10 thoughts on “Preserve your Family’s Stories by Telling Them

  1. You might find out how much your ancestors knew about the 1918 flu by looking at the newspapers of the time. Not just big cities, but even small town papers had a lot on it here in Oregon. Two of my relatives died in it who were rural farmers. It hit that area (Polk County, Oregon) hard. They used quarantine, closed schools, churches, public gathering and entertainment venues. They talked about the possibility of closing all businesses. There was a severe shortage of nurses and doctors to treat the sick.

    Mask wearing rules and screens between guests in public eating places were part of what was happening in bigger cities like Portland. A clear theme was they didn’t know much about the disease, but that people who had it wouldn’t get it again.

    • That’s a good idea. Unfortunately, there are no best newspapers online in Appalachia. But even cities an hour or so away would be meaningful.

  2. Hi Roberta,

    Just wanted to share something I’ve been doing recently. My 91 year old Mom passed away several months ago and of course I’ve been missing her something awful.

    One of the things I miss the most is our nearly-every-morning phone calls. Even though we live in the same city, we would often spend an hour just chatting about stuff, both insignificant and not so insignificant.

    About a month ago, I created a journal and began writing letters to her, just filling her in on the goings-on in the world and our family. And I also reminisce about fun times we had, and all the wonderful family stories she shared with me.

    I also have a blog about my family history but I find the physical act of writing letters to my Mom to be quite personal and therapeutic. And I’m also hopeful my children and grandchildren will some day read the letters and learn more about both of us.

  3. I have been making an effort to write down ancestors’ stories. Some stories, with my husband’s family as well as mine, are only known by me so now it’s up to me to get them on record. When writing, I read some or your ancestor stories for inspiration, they are a model for how it should be done. Mine are not so well done, but even if I can’t write a complete story I’ve started emailing brief snippets to one of my sons who has an interest in family history. Luckily for me, he is well organized and computer savvy, and is storing them for posterity. I loved the story about your mom getting tipsy on Thanksgiving, the photo of her with the bow on her forehead is so cute! I remember seeing my mom tipsy when I was about 11 or 12; the summer after my father died we took a trip out west to visit mom’s numerous sisters. They kept giving her wine to drink and mom was very relaxed and jolly!

  4. Were any of your Estes relatives born in North Carolina? Did they move from NC to Tennessee?
    Do you know of any Estes women marrying into the Longan family of Missouri?
    Bonnie

  5. I do a thing I call my Grandfather Stories. During my family history research, when I find an interesting family story, I put together a short paper. I go over the story, attempting to tell as much of it from memory as possible, during a family gathering. I have found that just telling it off the cuff works best. I also pass out copies which are written for the grandkids, my primary audience. And if I include some quotes I will have the grandkids participate by reading the quotes or key passages to the group.

    • What fun! So glad you are doing that. If there is anyone else who remembers too, they probably have memories to add.

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