Sunday, May 2, 2010

How Old Are the Hills?

"Jennie was born in Lowville New York on Aug 30, 1885?"

So begins a letter Grand*a Murray wrote to help me out with a 7th-grade English project. Our assignment was to fill out a rough family tree and write a short essay about one of our ancestors. I had chosen Grand*a's mother, Jennie (Ryan) Murray, and Grand*a had sent me a wonderful, nine-page mini-biography to draw from. At the time, I was stressed about finishing the project and didn't notice Grand*a's question mark: skimming for details to put in my paper, I was just happy to have a date to write down.

Once it was in my essay, though, I became sure of it. I began to think of that date as a fixed point from which the rest of Jennie's life could be reckoned. How old was Jennie when her mother died? 15! How old when she married? 28! The sentences filled themselves in naturally, and as they did, I became more and more confident of the story I was building. For several years afterward, whenever Ryan or Murray family history came up, I would automatically relate it to that date: how long had such-and-such happened before or after August 30, 1885?

I didn't begin researching my family history on my own until a few months ago. By that time, I'd forgotten the date and hadn't looked at Grand*a's letter in years. What I recalled most about Jennie then was that there were lots of great stories about her. Because she was still so vividly remembered (and because I hadn't forgotten my junior-high confidence), I assumed that I didn't need to worry about the accuracy of the information my main written family sources gave about her. These documents, after all, were put together either by Jennie's children or with their help.

So when I found Grand*a's letter again recently, the deep uncertainty surrounding that first, most basic fact startled me.

"[Mother] would never tell us her age," Grand*a explains in the letter. "When we asked her she would say, 'I'm as old as the hills.' After her death the Ryan family said she was older than the date on her tombstone."

At first, I was horrified. If this information panned out and it turned out that the Ryans were right, it would mean that not only had my family sources gotten Jennie's birth date wrong, but that it was also wrong on her marriage return and her death certificate. If even official records couldn't be trusted for such a recent ancestor (Jennie died in 1947), how could I be sure of anything I learned about the older ones?

The answer, of course, was that I couldn't--not completely. Even when you're dealing with official documents, clerks make mistakes. People misread what's been written. Files get shuffled around and mixed up. Bugs chew holes in paper. Disasters strike. Ink fades. Knowing these things from the outset, I had already prepared myself for more and more guesswork and less and less hard evidence the further back I went. And I knew that I would be very likely to run into ancestors who didn't know their right ages or other information due to lack of education or just because their families didn't keep track. But the Ryans were proud of their literacy. They kept track. Jennie knew exactly how old she was. She just refused to admit it--and that was what took me off guard. I knew at once, though, that she couldn't be the only woman in my family tree who had withheld information from her children. Clearly, I needed to ease up on my assumptions and dial up my doubt-o-meter.

Once I'd taken a few deep breaths and adjusted my thinking, I realized what a wonderful gift Grand*a had given me: an insight into Jennie's character. This was a more than even trade for a little uncertainty about her exact birth date. How great to learn that she was so obviously sensitive about her age! The age she claimed to have been at marriage (28) was a bit late for the times, and her touchiness shows that she worried about how others might see her. But the fact that she chose to respond to the unwelcome question of "How old are you?" with a such a teasing non-answer also shows that she had a sense of humor--even mischief--about it.

At a recent family gathering, I mentioned this "old as the hills" business to two of Mom's first cousins. To my surprise, I learned that Grand*a had only told half the story. It seems that denying her age became a sort of game that Jennie played with her children, and it made such an impression that Mom's cousins had grown up hearing about it. Here's how the game went:
"How old are you?" (someone would ask).
"I'm as old as the hills" (Jennie would reply).
"How old are the hills?"
"As old as Anne."
"How old is Anne?"
"As old as I am."
So Jennie not only made her age a secret, she turned the secret into a riddle that looped back on itself. (And naturally, nobody I've asked has any idea who Anne is.)

At that point, I had already decided to call my family history blog "As Old As the Hills," but I knew when I heard the extended version of Jennie's tease that I'd made the right call. I like the fact that it makes a nod towards a family story, and that it's also an older figurative expression: on Mom's side of the family, at least, capturing a relative's way of speaking is sometimes the whole point of sharing a story about them. "As old as the hills" also draws a connection between time and the land--fitting, since most of my ancestors were farmers. At the same time, it's nicely vague: How old? Which hills?

And finally, it serves as a personal reminder to me to work carefully and avoid assumptions--but also not to take the whole project too seriously. The dead, after all, could be feeding me false information. Perhaps one day, after a long climb, I will reach a high pinnacle of understanding--only to find some long-dead ancestor has been pulling my leg the whole way.

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