Word by Word

Creating myself one word at a time.

Old letters

Old letters

Photo by Jan Mary (www.janmary.com)

When I was in the fifth grade, my class took a field trip. Well, we took a few, but there was one that stuck with me. My family was living in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where my father was stationed at the Air Force base.

There was a local hero in Grand Forks and the surrounding area. His name was Carl Ben Eielson; he was an early aviator of the same pioneering spirit as Wiley Post or Charles Lindbergh. He died tragically in a plane crash in Alaska trying to deliver mail.

My elementary school was named for him, so my teacher decided we would all load onto a large yellow school bus and drive to Hatton, North Dakota, and visit his home town. We visited the cemetery where he was buried and then his home, where an Eielson relative gave us a tour.

One thing you should know about me is that from an early age my family vacations consisted of romps through cemeteries looking for ancestors and family members, so this field trip was much like a vacation.

The Eielson relative let a group of fifth graders have the run of the house. She let us interact with the items in this house rather than ushering us through it like a museum. A friend and I wandered to the attic and found a dusty corner near a gable window. In the niche was an old trunk and in the old trunk were maps, letters and journals of Eielson’s. We spent nearly a half hour reading through the documents.

I was enthralled. History, personal history, was sitting in my lap. My friend and I were as gentle as we could be with the documents, knowing even at that age we were privileged to hold those papers.

With that field trip, I was hooked. From that point on, I paid extra attention to my mother’s genealogy lessons. Trips to the historical societies weren’t nearly as boring. Romps through cemeteries in the middle of Great Plains’ territories were adventures. Conversations with my elderly living relatives drew back the curtain on eras long before me.

Unbeknownst to me, by exploring my past I was stumbling into my future. You see, genealogy research can only uncover so many details, a marriage date, a signature on a census document, or a cause of death on a death certificate. I found obituaries are usually a treasure trove of names and details.

Yet, there are so many unknowns there. The hopes, dreams and motivations of those people can only be guessed at now. When you hear a story of how a relative came to leave everything they ever knew and travel across the country or even the world, often the why is lost to the ages. The true love story of a young couple is now only a date and some pictures.

Family TreeThis is where my imagination has stepped in and started to wonder about the whys. This is where my passion for historical fiction has rooted itself: the everyday stories of everyday people with lives that may often surprise us if we take a closer look.

The following is a more general explanation of the story I’m currently researching and writing. In the future, I’ll post a more specific description. Ultimately, the tales and some family legends will find their way into my work as a way of honoring those who came before me.

Do you have family tales or legends that always come up at the family reunion? Are there any family mysteries in your tree?

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