Ways of Seeing: Roadtrip inspires memories

The sale of my parents’ property after years on the market was the spark for a trip across the country with my husband this fall and winter. As a young couple we had made a road trip to Alaska in an old Chevrolet and a pup tent. Over the decades, we’d promised ourselves we would do this again with more time and equipment. Finally we would.
Another inspiration was my love of family stories. A cousin of my mother’s, age ninety-five, contacted me recently to share family history. He lives in Wisconsin in the town in which my grandmother grew up. I’d just finished a documentary based on my father’s parents and their children. Given this cousin’s advanced age, I couldn’t put off researching my mother’s side. However, between preparing to leave our house in the hands of a tenant and finding our first camper there wasn’t much time to prepare and mull over what to bring.
Moving into the small camper with my husband and dog for eight months on a cross-country trip forced me to leave many personal possessions behind. I brought a Frisbee, which I rarely use, and my yoga mat and blocks, which, so far, I’m using to keep utilitarian items in place. I brought three paperback novels, a guidebook to the national parks, and three New Yorkers off my stack. I packed two notebooks and a laptop we set up from my desktop computer. A plastic bag holds notecards, stamps and my address book.
It has turned out that the most important object was inspired by the part of the journey connecting with family. It’s the size and shape of a bowling bag and is jammed with two thick, leather-bound nineteenth century photo albums, two manila envelopes of loose photos, a few old family letters from the 1850s, the family tree and three personal journals. My mother had kept these in her secretary after she received them from her mother. Near the end of my mother’s life, I would poke around in a drawer and take out a letter or part of a journal to read. They didn’t hold her attention long, so I didn’t learn much. When she died, my sisters and I put everything into a cardboard box. Just before I left, I spent ten minutes choosing items from this box to take with me.
When I arrived at a cousin’s house outside Minneapolis, I placed in her hands a red leather Daily Diary that our great-grandmother had held in her hands seventy years earlier. She’d written in it each day in the eighty-second year of her life. Tears welled up in both our eyes. I had known nothing about this woman except her name, Kate Buell Ranney, until I opened the diary. My mother Kate had mentioned her grandmother, for whom she was named, over the years, but didn’t tell me about her. My cousin, Kate, whose dad had died when she was two years old, didn’t even know our great-grandmother’s name.
I was told of ancestors who’d migrated out west from Orwell after the Erie Canal opened. One of them eventually settled on farmland that is still in the family. Part of my journey would be staying at that farm. I read the Daily Diary for the first time as we traveled west. It spoke of life on the farm in Fort Atkinson, Wisc., where one daughter had grown up, married a neighbor’s son, and raised their children, and the life in Des Moines where her other daughter moved after marrying a doctor from Iowa.
Her two children were so different and so fond of one another. Letters flew back and forth between the little Wisconsin farm town and the city. There was also much traveling back to the farm with my grandmother at the wheel, her husband having died two months before the diary began Jan. 1, 1936. So much calling on and being called on! Sunday school and missionary society were regular entries.
This was a year in which my mother and her three brothers were all in college. They are coming and going in the diary entries. Their laundry was sent home, my mother’s by train to be washed, ironed and returned. My mother never told me that! There was so much life in this little red book, and every word legible in her fine hand. We cousins poured over it, sharing what memories it stirred, as we learned something of the character of our great-grandmother and of the college years of our parents as seen from their grandmother’s perspective. We would get out the old photo album, open it gingerly and peer at the faces from our shared past.
While she was able to return just a few times over the decades of her long life, my mother never lost her loyalty to the land and people of the Midwest. I’d thought when I retired, we would go there together, but by then she was too weak to make the trip. A dozen years later I find a place of gentle hills, rocky soil challenging to work and caring people.
Time collapses, and the connection with ancestors is strong. My cousins and I marvel over how a diary, old photos and scattered memories woven together can tell a family story, be part of a nation’s story. As a child, I’d never known my mother’s parents or grandparents, her aunt and family. Now it seems I do.
Jill Vickers is a native of the Champlain Valley, a retired teacher of literacy and the founder of a video production company. Special interests include family history, travel and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and their springer spaniel in Bridport.

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