Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thinking about Reunions

I spent the day scanning reunion announcements that were found in the trunks of things that have been passed along to me. There were three reunions: The Gillespie Family Reunion, which started in 1910, The Dodder Family Reunion, which started in 1926, and The WAG (William A. Gillespie) Family Reunion, which started in 1957. I've not seen formal announcements from the very early days, maybe there were none other than word of mouth. But eventually the families grew to a size where announcements were sent by mail to family members, usually well ahead of time so that people could plan in advance to attend. And for a very long time, many did.

The phenomenon of the family reunion was really something. They were organized! They were in practice almost an institution! They had officers and committees, and business meetings. And family history was only a fraction of its purpose. Each reunion documented the oldest attendee and the youngest, and there was a reading of the past year's vital statistics - who was born, who married, who died. But they also worked long and hard on entertainment and activities for all the different age groups to participate in. It was a time for everybody to have some fun together. And I think most of the time, they did. Some of my earliest memories are of Michigan summers at these "events" that would be jammed with old and young alike, all of whom I knew nothing about because my family always traveled from beyond Michigan to attend. But reliably I would always be hugged by elders who looked and smelled funny, and then I would run off with the other kids to explore all the stuff in the family museum, or to ride around in the carriage that had come to Michigan from Canada. It seems like so long ago and it seems like yesterday.

So this afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about what a Gillespie reunion might look like today. And I started to think about all the relations I have met through the internet since I started working with this family history several years ago. What I come to realize as I locate and slowly get to know each new relation, is how we all come from the same traceable origin and yet how we have all branched out into the world in our own ways. Which is to say we're different. I think back in "the day", closer to the center of the now gigantic circle, people were more alike, generally speaking. We know they had the same ethnicity. We know they were all Protestant Christians and from their earliest days in America, their politics were Republican. We know they all knew what it meant to be self sustaining, to grow their own food and hunt and build and rebuild their homes. They all lived within certain economic means that seemed to improve gradually over time with all the talent and hard work of all the family units. They believed in education and service, and applied themselves vigorously in their communities as well as their families. And most certain of all, this summary of their ideology was shared. I think at a family reunion, one could count on having lively conversation with members who for the most part believed and lived a shared existence.

But how would that look today? So many progeny left the Michigan home nest, scattering to the four winds of the planet. And in the course of those journeys we diversified. We followed our interests and our hearts along unimagined paths. We moved, we worked, we fought wars, we struggled for peace and prosperity, and we fell in love with people and places so different from our Michigan heritage that we ourselves changed and grew into our own unique lives. We came to believe in something, whatever it is, and today we nurture ourselves and our loved ones within that context. But who are we Gillespie's now? We're not all the same any more. We have married across many lines by now. We have not one religion nor any singular spiritual view. We've found no one traditional way to make a living and feed our families. Our politics range the gamut, no doubt. And our families? Well, some look like they used to, and some do not. We're a blend now, both as individuals and as families.

Maybe the challenge of accepting our differences in the world is to accept them first among ourselves in our own families. My father, who was not a Gillespsie by the way, taught me this valuable lesson. For years, he and I didn't have much to do with each other because there wasn't a subject under the sun we could agree about. But somewhere HE decided that he simply didn't want that dynamic with his daughter any more. So he listened rather than judged, and gently, he asked me to do the same. With time and practice, we had lively conversations that we knew would never result in changing the other's point of view. But he'd kiss me on the cheek and I'd hug him hard, and we could smile with such deep affection knowing that loving each other was really all that mattered most.

So I think if I am ever part of resurrecting the reunion tradition, I will send announcements that say something like this: Come as you are. Be welcome and be seen and be open. Look into the kaleidoscope and be amazed. We are each part of the mosaic simply by virtue of the heritage we all claim, and we belong. We're blood. We're family. Let's introduce ourselves.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The News Fit to Print

First I want to give credit to people who blog full time. How do you do that AND everything else in both life and genealogy? Wow. With that said, I am obviously behind in logging my genealogy research.

Well, what have I been doing? I went back to SLC again to finalize arrangements on a timeshare since it's clear that spending time there often results in the most bang for the research buck. So naturally I did research in between signing papers. On the Gillespie side, we discovered a Gillespie of the town Cavanecaw in County Armagh. This was an exciting find - a town!

Then May rolled around, and my sister and I went to Nebraska to pick up 6 trunks of family history stuff. That was around Mother's Day and I am STILL sorting and labeling and filing. There are so many valuable things to be found including correspondence, photos, slides, memorabilia. But one particular treasure is found in hundreds of self-published newsletters about the Gillespie family, written in most part by Edith Gillespie (author of The Gillespie Family Record, which was last published in 1966). Indeed, there are two newsletters, one called The Gillespie WAG, where WAG are the initials of Edith's father, William A. Gillespie. The WAG newsletters start in 1954 and continue to 1981. The newsletters were written and mailed monthly, and as time wore on, some issues were multi-page, although Edith was very good at cramming as much as she possibly could on to one page, obviously to save on the printing and postage. The printing was done by mimeograph, and I am thinking she had her own machine, although I don't know that for sure. In any case, every single month for roughly 27 years, Edith printed and mailed out a newsletter to WAG descendants. Taken altogether, this piece of work is staggering. Not only am I reading about my own life as written by a far-away great aunt, but I am following the story of my mother's family. Since my mother was the first of the clan to leave the state of Michigan when she came of age, she left behind stories in progress - stories I only heard in roundabout ways, if at all. For that reason, my own memories and knowing of Michigan are sketchy. Some things reported in the newsletter are a surprise, like when Uncle Foster died suddenly (I never knew him or even of him much, so to learn about his life and then sudden death by way of the WAG newsletter took me off guard). On the other hand, some things beg anticipation because I do know what's going to happen (e.g., knowing the date of my grandfather's death, I find myself hanging on any mention of him in the months before). It's all truly amazing.

At some point Edith realized that we had/have a good number of relations who were not direct descendants of WAG, and so she started a second newsletter called Gillespie Cousins in 1964. This newsletter was much less frequent - usually only once or twice a year - but they are equally packed with details that are a genalogist's dream come true. Gillespie Cousins continued under the efforts for Bruce Gillespie until Edith's death in 1986.

To be honest, I'm still absorbing it all. It was a different time, when family was nearly everything in a person's life. In these trunks are photos and details about family reunions that occurred annually going back to 1915 or so. The reunions had a board and committees, and the WAG siblings even had a financial club where they invested in the stock market together and then made the proceeds available for family members in need. I'm still trying to determine exactly when the LAST reunion was, and why they stopped, although I can probably guess. They stopped in large part because Edith got old and then older, and then she died. She was a one-woman force who drove the Gillespie and Dodder (her mother's side) family and amazingly recorded its genealogy. I begin to wonder if I will ever get a handle on everything she did, never mind how she did any of it without a computer....

Well, the newsletters have given me yet one more thing to do. First I have made an index so I know which issues are in my possession and which are missing. I am sending out word to anybody anywhere who might be able to come up with the missing issues. Hoping and praying that I will indeed be able to come up with a complete set, I will then publish them altogether and make them available for family researchers. I have been scanning the issues I have into PDF and better yet, they are searchable! So even though I have stayed up late nights reading every word, I can now circle back through and search. This has allowed me to do things like start an index of reunions - when and where they were held along with any other relevant details. It's mind boggling, and fun, and most importantly, the things found in these newsletters will add tremendous depth to the story of so many Gillespie descendants.

I can tell you that when the newsletter set is complete, I will be generating a commemorative print edition with the front section dedicated to the life of Edith Gillespie. I start to run out of adjectives when it comes to being amazed by her fairly unsung accomplishments. It's time to give her proper honor.

In the mean time, my awesome cousins are gleefully joining in whenever and wherever possible. From Michigan and Hawaii start to come scans of photos and letters that have been (and still are) filling attic space. Each image is jaw-dropping, heart-racing, blood-pressure-rising exciting to look at. We are all scurrying trying to find elders who can identify and tell stories that go with these things. Time is ticking. And meanwhile we occasionally catch ourselves looking in the mirror wondering what part of us is them, what part of them is us, and who will be the ones to recognize any of us 100 years from now?