Friday, February 3, 2017

In Tribute to Frances Overstreet Kelsey

An entrance to the ranch in the present day.

            Perhaps it's because one of my children now resides with my ancestors, but I think a great deal about my ancestors. This has heightened recently as the book I am currently writing concerns my father. A great deal of background and research work is going into this project, and as a result I have learned some things about my ancestors I had not known.

               The sum total of what I knew about my paternal great grandmother was told to me by my mother. Before I was born, and we moved three thousand miles East to a job my father took, she had contact with my father's dad and his siblings, and they spoke of their mother fondly fairly often.  I knew that, from my mother's perspective, my great-grandmother was the wife of a California rancher. I knew that my great grandmother had ten children and worked very hard on their 9600 acre ranch in the 1880s.

                In later years I learned that she was the daughter of a San Francisco family, who were authors and college professors. They wrote books on popular psychology of that day, on family and on child rearing. Still, although I had met one of my father's uncles, and one of his aunt's when they traveled East where I grew up, I didn't know more.

               In the past few months I have been working my way through diaries, letters, copies of letters from family, all with the idea of providing the most accurate perspectives in a book which centers on my father and where his courage and mettle originated. Slowly, the personalities of the uncles and aunts who so clearly impacted my father's personality emerged.  They were intelligent people, each of whom had creativity in one form or another. They were accomplished horsemen and women. All ten of them completed university in an era where most women did not.

             So much of what I had believed was simply me, turns out to be echoed in my great grandparents and in their children. So many of my own skills, likes and dislikes have their origins in a secluded arid California ranch. So much of who my father was, and what he taught me has its origins in that place.

              This week, my daughter located a picture of my great grandmother as a young wife posted on a website on the internet.  I don't think she looks like me, or like my daughter, but there was something about her face that was stirringly familiar.  The woman who somehow did laundry and made delicious food for ten young children, her husband, herself, ranch hands, had an intelligent and yet a loving look. Somehow this woman maintained the new house her husband had built, kept it immaculate, and helped him repair literally miles of fencing when her sons and daughters were too small to help. She still found time to maintain relationships with her relatives, particularly an aunt who raised her. She read a great deal and wrote in a diary. She loved books and particularly oriental art.  She successfully raised all ten successful and intelligent children. What she and her husband taught them, echoes all these years later in the values and perspectives I have taught to my own children, and that they are teaching to my grandson. Of course, it should  not be a surprise that these likes and dislikes are reflected in my cousins as well.  The woman who worked side by side with her husband in a life filled with anything else but privilege, should be my hero.

             I am betting that I am not the only one who sits on Earth having benefited by the choices and the work done by our ancestors. I am not speaking of material goods here. I am speaking of a love of learning, of reading, of intellectual curiosity, a work ethic, and of valuing solitude, particularly in a world now dominated by, and perhaps damaged by, technology.  When you can, try to preserve and read whatever is known about your own ancestors. Try to honor them by preserving some of their habits in your own life and in that of your children. We are all gently standing on their shoulders.