I’ve been fascinated with my family history since I was a young teenager. Among the first lists and notes I created were those devoted to who my earlier family members were and anything else I could learn about them. Unfortunately I didn’t ask nearly as many questions as I should have nor did I always write things down. It wasn’t until I was an adult and well into my years that I really began to conscientiously keep written track of nearly everything I was told.
I’ve spent untold hours in the cause of documenting all I can learn about my family. Over the years I’ve gone from a few dozen names, with dates, places and sometimes stories, to a few hundred in the mid 1980s to around 1,200 ten years later. By the year 2000 those numbers grew to a few thousand. Now my database has more than 18,000 names. As carefully as I can I’ve tried to assure there are no duplicate records and no mistakes. More than half of them (9,100) are blood relatives spanning 34 generations. The photo above was taken in 1905 in Clearfield County, PA. It’s of my great-grandfather Eli Lines and his wife Mary. Two of their six children are standing behind, they are a brother and sister of my grandfather’s. I knew both of them. My great Aunt Cornelia was 12-years old when that photo was taken. She died at the age of 99.
One thing is certain. As I look at the records of my paternal grandparents Harry and Nora Lines and the names of their 13 children all of whom I knew except three boys who died as young children in 1910, 1921 and 1926 — and my father who died when I was two — I’ve come to appreciate how short life really is. It wasn’t that long ago that all nine of my aunts and uncles were living, breathing people who I visited with, spoke to, loved and admired.
Following the deaths of those three brothers as young children my father was the next one of his brothers and sisters to die in 1955. He was only 31. It would be 33-years before a second brother would pass on in 1988. Two years later my aunt Maxine would die. She was also my adoptive mother who adopted me in 1956. My grandmother Nora died at the age of 77. Maxine told me on more than one occasion she had a strong premonition she wouldn’t live any longer than her mother, who she loved dearly. She was right. She died 17 days before her 78th birthday. Maxine is the little girl in the picture to the left, with her hands folded in front of her. The photo was taken in about 1919. She is sitting on her mother’s lap. To the left is my great-grandmother Mary Jane Patton (the wife of Eli in the photo above). Mary’s father Edward is pictured below. His life was touched by tragedy when his young wife died, leaving him to raise his four young children alone. He never remarried. The young boy on his grandmother Patton’s lap is Maxine’s first cousin Ray Jr. He would grow up and enlist in the Army and after a 30-year career would retire in 1965 as a full colonel. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Everybody liked and admired “Ray Jr.” His, as well as Edward’s, are stories that need to be told and shared.
Three years after Maxine another brother passed away in 1993, then five years later my youngest uncle. A year later my oldest uncle died on his 93rd birthday in 1999. Over the next ten years the remaining four would all be gone. Even if you include my father, who died a young man, those ten adult children of my grandparents lived an average of more than 78 years.
Current life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years. So in light of the numbers you could say most of those relatives lived long lives. Over the 20-year span of the early 1900s when my aunts and uncles were born, the average life expectancy was 52.7 years. By the time they were around my age it had climbed to 72 years. Imagine that. The average life expectancy has grown by 26 years in a single generation and that number will no doubt grow higher before my generation has faded away.
Along the way in this journey as I have sought for information about those who were here before us I’ve come to know a lot of blood relatives who share in the same interests. It’s been enriching to know them and to share in what we’ve learned.
A project is underway to tell the story of one of the branches of my family. It will be a book about my 4th great-grandfather William Bloom and his descendants.* William who was born in 1752 immigrated to the United States as a 7-month old infant. It’s believed he served in the Revolutionary War. He was one of the earliest settlers and progenitors of the most prominent family of Clearfield County, PA. He and his wife Mary Ann Mettler’s descendants number in the tens of thousands. Their son John, born in 1786, is pictured to the right. When William was born life expectancy was around 35-40 years. The figures however are skewed by dreadful infant mortality rates, and early childhood deaths. William lived to be 76.
To me family history is not a cold gathering of names, dates and places but, instead, it’s breathing life into those who have gone before us. We are the story tellers of our tribe. All tribes have one. We have been called by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: Tell our story. So, we try.
In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood over and cried? How many times have I told our ancestors you have a wonderful family you would be proud of? How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt somehow there was love there for me?
It goes beyond documenting facts. It’s about who am I. It’s about pride in what our ancestors accomplished and how they contributed to what we are today.
I do this to remember, respect and honor their hardships and the losses they suffered. I feel a deep sense of pride knowing that many fought to make and preserve for us a Nation. I understand they were doing it for us. So we might be born who we are and enjoy the traditions they fought to keep and that we might remember them. So we do.
With love and caring I collect each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us.
So as one called I tell the story of my family… our tribe. It will be up to yet another, called in the next generation, to take my place in the long line of family story tellers and scribes.
Called as young boy I seek after my family history to put flesh on the bones and meaning in the lives of those that came before me. We story tellers do it in hopes that what we pass on will influence the minds and hearts of those who follow… to remember and to never forget.
The Story Tellers is said to be originally written by Della M. Cummings Wright and rewritten by her grand daughter, Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson. It has been rewritten by others and this is yet another version with further editing and words of my own.
~~ Rick Gleason ~~
A special thanks to my cousin Gloria who provided most of these photos.
SEE ALSO this video I made on this subject, We Are the Story Tellers
*The book A Bloom By Any Name was published in April of 2016