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Linked by Words: Uncovering a Piece of Family History

By posted at 10:35 am on February 16, 2010 1

In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.

I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.

My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.

coverI knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.

I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.

And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.

I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.

But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.

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One Response to “Linked by Words: Uncovering a Piece of Family History”

  1. ElGordo
    at 2:04 pm on February 19, 2010

    Well said, Andrew.

    I do biographies for families, not for vast distribution (www.privatebiographer.com) but still very significant to the family. I’ll add your essay to what I show people who are beginning to contemplate such projects. They can be huge, but the internet enables a lot more “time travel” such as you experienced than was ever before possible.

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