Monday, December 23, 2013

My mother's mother's mother.

I'm just back from a few days in grand Junction, CO, where now reside my grandparents, Aunt and uncle, parents as of about a year and a half ago, and most recently, a cousin and his little family. I have a lot of people  in GJ. I also have a ton of family history there. I think it's the closest thing I have to an ancestral home. Grandpa Roper had a big-ish plot of land there that he farmed, that has now been parceled out a bit to the four kids, so my parents own a piece of it. I suppose for almost a century now, Ropers and Walkers have lived in GJ, and for over a century, in Gunnison, about 120 miles to the southeast, in the Rockies.

The main purpose of my visit was to immerse myself in Grandma Dot's rather large collection of family history work--binders full of letters, pictures, maps, newspaper articles and clippings, lineage charts, every possible historical documentation you can think of. Grandma had started a biography of her mother, Arla Tufly Walker, many years ago, and the last time I was there, I decided it would be up to me to help her finish it. Grandma is 87 now, and in remarkably good health for her age, but she is beginning to show signs of mental decline: forgetfulness, repeating herself, occasional disorientation. Based on her own judgment as well as that of her two children who live nearby, it's unlikely she will finish the biography by herself. She had outlined about 11 chapters, and written 3 of them. So I decided what I could do was get her to talk about what she would have put in the remaining chapters, record her and transcribe it in order to finish the thing.

So this last trip, we got started. As it turned out, it seemed more efficient to actually take notes in a word document as Grandma talked, rather than add the extra step of recording and transcribing. That also meant she could look over my shoulder and correct things, and even start to edit a little bit. Actually, this revealed to me some more detail about Grandma's short-term memory loss. I would write exactly what she told me, with just a bit of grammar editing, and as she looked over my shoulder sometimes she would correct me, insisting she hadn't said such and such a thing, but in fact something different. That didn't happen a lot. But it happened enough that I decided this was a better way than recording her. I will also have to do my own research to verify things.

And I'm pretty excited about that. Our next move will be--hopefully--to take a trip up to Gunnison together, along with Grandpa. I'm hoping they will both be up for that. I don't know... they might not be. It's not exactly an easy drive, even for a passenger, and I don't know if they could manage there and back in one day. And if not, we'll have to find some sort of lodging, which seems pretty disruptive to a couple of old folks who have a very set daily routine.    

It's been pretty amazing getting to know Arla better. I wish I could have known her--and I do hope I will know her. I feel that I have a lot in common with her. She was well-educated, being quite bookish and motivated to succeed in school from her childhood. Her own mother, Minnie Curtis Tufly, insisted on Arla attending college, and worked to help pay for her education. Arla eventually got her teaching degree from Colorado State Normal School (as it was then known--today it is Western State Colorado University, with some other intervening appelations), and went on for more advanced work a the state university in Denver. She then came back to teach English at CSNS. The last few days, Grandma mostly focused on stories relating to Arla as a young mother, and trips they took together when Grandma was very young. Grandma has a great memory for her early years. We just barely got to talking about Arla's extensive involvement in the community. She was instrumental in starting up Gunnison's first public library. (This fact was what made me eager to visit Gunnison--seems to me the current library must have some of it's own history on file, including information about Arla's involvement. Much as I love Grandma's stories, I feel it will be important to gather information from more sources.) Arla also taught Sunday School at the Community Church in Gunnison, and Grandma says she can't remember a time when she *wasn't* teaching Sunday School.

I'm beginning to understand the family history freaks--the people who can't understand why you are not as excited about it as they are! The more I learn about Arla and her personality, and the things with which she filled her life, the closer I feel to her--and consequently, I feel inspired as to the things with which I want to fill my own life.

It's been interesting to consider the intricate, positive interaction between biological and environmental heredity, as well. I've seen personality traits in Grandma's stories of Arla that seem very fundamental to my own personality. It's fascinating to ponder on the ability of both DNA as well as parental influence to pass traits down through generations. Even though Grandma Dot was quite rebellious against her mother's high-class, college educated influence, preferring to do farm work with her father, she nevertheless eventually finished college, and became a teacher like her mother. She even eventually got a master's degree, moving beyond her mother's educational accomplishments. And even though, as far as I can tell, every mother-daughter relationship from Arla to me has been characterized by resistance and rebellion, we all of us nevertheless have a passion for books and learning. And I don't doubt that that trait has it's roots in both biology and environment. There have been times when I felt I owed it to my maternal line to go on and get a doctorate. But I suppose, now I feel I only ought to do that if I can actually use it to improve the lives of those around me, since that seems to have been the motivation for my forebears.  

I think one barrier to my getting into my family history has been Mormon guilt--the huge "should" attached to it. Now that I feel quite a lot less of that, it's much easier to get interested in the stories. I honestly think learning these stories of my ancestors is MUCH more important than doing proxy ordinances for them in a temple which, more than likely, they'd never willingly entered on their own, taking on strange, sexist oaths and devotions to a cultish, mortal institution...  No. What's important is learning about my people, my heritage. Learning what my blood is made of, and perhaps understanding who I am generationally. What's important is keeping these stories and making them available for the next generations. I believe this knowledge of each other is what seals us.