Thank you to Michael Elwood Pollock for this guest post. You can read more about Michael in his bio at the end of this post or on his website, Anquestory.
I recently attended with my fiancee the funeral of a young man who not only died too young, but to whom my fiancee had been a sort of second “mother,” his being not just a contemporary of her own children, but living in the neighborhood, thus spending many hours in her home as a child, so his death struck particularly close to her. While I never met the young man, I have reached an age where it is not unusual to pick up a newspaper or receive a phone call, email or letter, and learn of the death of someone I not only knew, but remembered fondly, with it becoming increasingly common for those persons to be my age if not younger!
The minister’s sermon was based upon a poem entitled “The Dash” and written by inspirational writer, speaker and entrepreneur Linda Ellis, both the sermon and poem referring to the fact that funerals represent a definitive ending to a life, a “period” if you will, but that it is the individual’s life, his/her impact on others that, represented by the “dash” on a tombstone between the dates of birth and death, that should be celebrated by a funeral, but too often is not.
The minister also spoke of his interest in genealogy and attempts to “document” the “dash” for the individuals in his tree.
While that is easily done when one actually has a memory of an individual who has died, it becomes more difficult with the passage of time simply because, when that memory is not written down, there will no longer be someone to share the memory with another. Furthermore, especially since the end of World War 2, families become quickly scattered to the four winds by divorce, job opportunities and other events because migrations have evolved from extended families, if not entire communities, to a nuclear family if not a single individual, so most children no longer grow up with cousins, aunts, uncles, and even grandparents part of their daily life and the parents sharing their own memories of those relatives with their children is no longer a part of our culture, children instead being entertained by television, video games, etc.
Though it is becoming less and less frequent, the result of Alex Haley’s Roots and is successors such as Who Do You Think You Are, I still encounter individuals who, when learning I am a professional genealogist, comment that genealogy is “boring,” being nothing more than a collection of dates and places.
Too often that is true and for that reason I am surprised that “The Dash” is no better known in the genealogical community than it apparently is, for while I cannot be expected, even with 40 years in the business, to have seen everything of significance relating to genealogy, I have also never seen mention of it by others, even better known than I, such as Dick Eastman.
Having began his “blogging” career as the moderator of the genealogy forum on CompuServe, and now publishing Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (anyone not already a subscriber may wish to become a subscriber by going to his site), it is rare that he is not the first to announce the latest “news.” I would thus urge anyone reading this to visit Linda Ellis’ site where she has posted not just the text of “The Dash” but also an accompanying video that does as good a job of conveying the message of “The Dash” as the poem does, if not better.
Genealogy/The Dash is NOT just dates and places. It is capable of telling one so much about not just oneself, but also why some events in history occurred in the manner they did.
I have a personality that I describe, for lack of a better term, as a “lawyer’s personality” for I will make statements, sometimes to complete strangers, to provoke a “debate,” with my even arguing a position with which I do not actually agree, because I enjoy the intellectual stimulation it offers. My mother has frequently stated “no one in MY FAMILY behaves that way.” My mother was one of 15 children, my growing up knowing all but 2, a child who died at birth and an aunt who I did not meet until I was 31, and only once, as a result of a business trip I took to Los Angeles to where she had moved, never to return east, almost 20 years before I was born.
As a result, I can attest to the fact that I am unlike anyone in my mother’s family. But on a visit to a second cousin of my father he never knew existed, much less met, I was told a story by that cousin about my father’s paternal grandmother, the cousin being old enough to remember her. After the death of her husband in Moorefield, WV, my great-grandmother lived in Romney, WV, with her daughter Lillie and son-in-law Abraham Bergdoll, while Elmira’s grandmother lived with Elmira and her parents in Fort Ashby, WV. In the early 1900s, before either telephones or cars became commonplace in the area, the two towns were close enough to each other than the respective families typically met for Sunday dinner alternating between their two homes.
Those family dinners invariably included a “debate” between the two sisters over the Civil War, with my great-grandmother arguing on behalf of the North. As her husband served, and before their marriage, 3.5 years in the Confederate army, I found her arguments quite strange but did not voice that sentiment to my cousin. Almost as though she was able to read my mind, she volunteered that while she was presumably too young to know it for a fact, she said she always suspected “Aunt Mary” argued for the North because she knew she could get a “rise” out of her sister, knowing that she had come to hate anything “Yankee” as a result of marrying a school teacher from Pennsylvania who promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again after learning of his wife’s pregnancy with their only child!
“Aunt Mary” had the same personality trait that I do. From the moment I first heard this story about Mary I have firmly believed the hereditary plays a substantial, if not dominant, role in one’s personality for I seemed to have been influenced by a woman who died 25 years before I was born and whom my father never knew–he was only 8 when she died, but more significantly, taken by his parents from Moorefield to Washington, DC, when he was still an infant. My father spoke of relatives of his father coming to visit the family in DC, more often than not because by virtue of owning one of the first automobiles in Hardy County, WV, my grandfather was regarded as an expert whose advise was sought when others decided to buy their own car, but never of being taken to WV for visits with family.
However, until quite recently, sociologists argued it was largely, if not exclusively, the result of the influences in the environment in which one is raised perhaps because of the implication that some behaviors, particularly criminal, may not be “controllable” with medication or modifiable with therapy.
While genealogy database programs have encouraged more people not just to take an interest in their ancestry, but also to record the details, it greatly bothers me that so many people continue to see genealogy as merely the collection of names, with the extent of their interest being a date and place of birth, death and marriage as well as the specific child of a couple from whom they descend, and the parents of the father.
My experiences have shown that often one learns more about one’s own family by including the brothers and sisters of an ancestor in one’s research as there may be family heirlooms (Mary Pollock’s bible, now in my possession, came to me after the death of Abe & Lillie Bergdoll’s son Richard who felt the Bible rightfully belonged in the hands of a Pollock rather than one of his own two sons) and other treasures that might go undiscovered by ignoring the siblings.
As the “nuturing” role of women is widely acknowledged, it is surprising to me that there is not a greater interest in tracing female ancestresses than there is. Not only am I the person I am because of Mary (Daniels) Pollock, but President Ronald Reagan frequently acknowledged that it was his mother Martha (Wilson) Reagan who gave him his love of theatre. From my research on his ancestry, I am also convinced that he acquired his love and fierce defense of freedom from her as her ancestors, the Wilsons and Blues, were forced to flee Canada to Illinois after taking up arms in a conflict known as The Patriot’s War.
The Patriot’s War receives surprisingly little attention even in Canada even though it resulted in both Canada being granted independence from the United Kingdom and the establishment of the British Commonwealth.
That is because the Patriot’s War was actually two separate, and concurrent, revolts, one by French-speaking Catholics in Quebec and the other primarily by Presbyterian Scots in the rest of Canada, with some assistance from sympathetic residents of the United States, over the repression of their respective religions by the Anglican English. The revolts were successfully crushed by the British because the French-speaking Catholics and Presbyerian Scots were as distrustly of the religious tolerance of each other as they were the English, so refused to cooperate with each other, ultimately proving the truthfulness of the adage, a “house” divided cannot stand. However, Queen Victoria was sufficiently disturbed that the revolts had occurred that she appointed the Whitelaw Commission to investigate the reasons for the revolts and division a “solution”, a solution which included the Canadian Constitution which was subsequently used to create the Commonwealth.
There are many more examples I can offer of how looking for not just more than just the dates and places of birth, death and marriage, but also beyond one’s immediate family line can both make ancestors seem like people one actually “knows” and offer explanations of historical events not just in the context of one’s own ancestry, but in the larger history of the region, if not country, where one’s family has lived, but that is perhaps better left to another post.
Therefore, in closing I would encourage everyone to record, if not in text, then in audio/video, one’s memories of not just one’s own life, but others who have been important to you, for leaving the same to others, it may not get done. In reading an obituary of one of the acquaintances mentioned earlier in this piece, I was struck by the fact that while it mentioned that his likeness in the form of a gargoyle adorns the entrance to the library he headed at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, it failed to mention that, or so I was told by someone who knew him better and longer than I, it was both a “gift” from UTS upon his retirement from the same and something he had requested what asked what he would like in the way of a memorial!
Michael Elwood Pollock, owner of Anquestory Genealogical Research & Consulting Services, has been a professional genealogist, specializing in Virginia/West Virginia research and with an emphasis on forensics (clearing of title to land, facilitating probate of wills and documenting heirs to intestate estates), since 1974 when he joined the staff of the Daughters of the American Revolution. He was a founding member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, was recognized in Marquis’ Who’s Who in South & Southwest (1997-1998) for his articles in his quarterly Frederick Findings on Revolutionary War soldiers of the Shenandoah Valley, was a “Provider” for Ancestry’s Expert Connect with a 5 out of 5 stars rating from his clients, and his articles have appeared in such publications as Heritage Quest Magazine, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, and Southside Virginian. His company website is www.anquestory.com.
Image: The pleasures of the married state / W. Proud del. et sculp. between 1770 and 1789 | Library of Congress