I just spent ten days in Oklahoma visiting my sister and her family. This year, because of our recent Ancestry.com research, we found ourselves going through boxes of old family photographs, sharing stories with my nephew, and dredging up old memories. Our history has been passed down verbally and I’m fortunate my sister was listening…
Our search took us back to Alva, Oklahomafor a day-long visit to my mother’s past. I had spent weeks creating our family tree. The branches on my dad’s side grew longer and longer as we found great-great-great grandparents; but, my mother’s side ends quickly, leaving the tree lop-sided. We were hoping to find information that might answer why.
Why did my grandmother, Lela, and her brother live with her maternal grandparents instead of their mother? Where was Lela’s only living sister during those years? She isn’t on any census records. Where did Lela’s father go? He apparently birthed many children in Illinois and disappeared. My great-grandmother is suddenly re-married to another man. Everyone is suddenly living in Oklahomabut not together. It has become a family secret that we are determined to solve.
We started at the county courthouse where we found our grandparent’s marriage registry, then on to the library where a gracious historian seated us in their genealogy corner and brought out a dozen dusty volumes. There was our great-grandfather’s photo with an article that described him as a successful farmer, a generous member of the community and a loving father who raised sixteen children and three grandchildren. Three. Perhaps Lela’s sister was simply missed in the census. We left with photocopied documents including a map of the old family farm, outside a town no longer in existence.
The house where my mother was born still stands. It is crumpled and sagging and sad. She was born prematurely following a still-born sister, and if our family stories are accurate, she was placed in a warm hearth – oven for many days to keep her alive.
Our next stop was the cemetery just on the outskirts of town. We lucked in and quickly found half the family, as well as some ancestors we’d known nothing about until that library visit. Lela and my grandfather are buried there. So is Lela’s mother with her second husband at her side. We spent another hot sweaty hour walking the rows of graves before finding the great-grandparents who raised Lela. I stood there gazing at their headstones and tried to visualize their harsh difficult lives farming the red clay dirt of Oklahoma, eking out a living and raising nineteen children.
There are still missing pieces, but it will take a trip to Illinois to search for them. We will do that next. In the meantime I’ve learned the lesson of writing things down and not relying on my children to listen to my long-winded stories. Stories they care nothing about at the moment, but will be dying to know in another thirty years when I’m gone.
(Photo upper left – house where my mother was born, Alva, OK)