The family we live in has been together for many generations and we are just the most recent members. When we look at one another, we see the products of centuries of love. Today’s Gifts-Daily Meditations for Families (Hazelden Publishing)
It is my deep belief that through connection, we heal.
David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of The Rabbit Hole
I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the history of my family over the last several years, and more recently about some other families that I’m not related to. I’m not a stalker of strangers per se; there’s a purpose to it as I’ll explain.
I included a chapter in When The Veil Comes Down titled “Healing With History.” Since then, I’ve gone a little deeper. I strongly believe that diving into our past provides us with multiple opportunities to connect and progress with healing in the present.
We were not singled out with the losses we’ve suffered
I’m pulling together a new book, The Gauntt-Case Clans-The Stories, The Legend and The Lore, that will include stories about some of my more colorful ancestors as well as those family members who have had a significant influence on my life. This is from the Introduction to the new book:
As I wrote and pulled these stories together—with the help of many others—I was struck, and even comforted, by the fact my ancestors lived hard lives. No one has been spared the loss of someone they deeply love. And yet, they have also experienced love, happiness, and joy; they have persevered and did what they must do to provide for and protect their families. When called they defended and risked their lives for their country.
They have always looked forward to the next adventure and opportunity. They continue to bring new life into this world, as hard and forbidding as it may seem sometimes. They have faith, love and respect for the generations that preceded them and for those to come. They have a deep faith in and respect for family.
Most of my ancestors over the past several generations suffered the deaths of multiple children, spouses and siblings. They had so many children because of that very real possibility. They endured the mass transitions of souls during the Civil War and World Wars I and II, and the devastating pandemics of diphtheria, cholera, small pox, polio, and the Spanish Flu. My family and I have not been singled out by tragedy.
History can connect us more deeply and broadly with our family
Shared family history is a very helpful tool to connect us with immediate and extended family members. It’s something we have in common. I leaned extensively upon my mother, brother and sister, my surviving aunt and uncle and cousins to help me research and write the stories about my grandfather and namesake, Vern Case, and my father. I mined their minds and closets for memories, documents and photos. This brought us closer together, particularly with my father’s story. We, as a family, rarely if ever talked about my dad after his suicide in 1970. But as I worked with them, particularly some of the cousins, we began to talk about our Dad, their uncle, and bring him back into the light. I shared with them the ups and downs of his life and they deeply appreciated knowing more about him. This also opened the door for them to talk more about our son, Jimmy, find out more about him, and share their sorrow.
It can be as simple as finding and sending a short story or a photograph of a common ancestor to get the ball rolling. For some it can be an icebreaker and door opener for deeper conversations they most certainly want to have, but don’t know how to start. I’ve referred to this as “going halfway.” You don’t have to wait for others to initiate contact; you can do it in a very neutral and comfortable way—through your shared history.
Our shared past can help reestablish or mend relationships with family members we thought forever broken or lost to us
Perhaps there is no better proof of this than the reconnection of my sister-in-law, Ainsley, with her son, Jeff, 52 years after his birth. That story is told in THE MOTHER AND CHILD REUNION. Ainsley was 18 and unwed when she gave birth to her son and immediately gave him up for adoption. Because Hilary and her mother had taken the Ancestry DNA tests, Jeff reached out to us through Ancestry.com after he got the results of his test that showed a close relationship with them. Jeff and Ainsley reconnected the next day and realized they have both lived in the Bay Area Jeff’s entire life. Jeff is Ainsley’s only child and the reconnection occurred shortly after Ainsley’s second husband died. This has been life-changing for both of them and the entire family.
Our family history can deeply connect us with more remote family members
I’ve made many new friends and connections within my extended family through our shared history. The internet and platforms like Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch.com, among others, have made it easier than ever to connect with distant family members and create opportunities to share, collaborate and foster deeper relationships. Quite often I’ve discovered that not only do we have family history in common, but they, too, are suffering the death of someone they deeply love. Here is just one example.
In December of 2017, David reached out to me through Ancestry.com. Turns out we’re both born in 1950, are 4th cousins and descend from Radford Ellis. He found on Ancestry the story I wrote, Almost Ellisville, about Rad getting shot off his horse in 1864 by a man he’d been feuding with. Rad’s 13-year-old son, Alf, my great grandfather, was riding behind his father on the horse. Wide-eyed and forever changed. David is also very active on Ancestry.com and he’s shared with me a treasure trove of information and photographs of our common ancestors.
David took a further look on my website, learned about my dad and Jimmy, and watched the film The Letter. We went deeper. David shared with me his amazing story. His mother was an alcoholic and he found her dead, face-down in a river, when he was 13-years old. He quit school after the 8th grade, got married at 15, worked full time and had three daughters with his first wife. Through sheer will power and fortuitous mentors, he ultimately became a senior executive of a Fortune 500 Company. His story needs to be a Ted Talk.
I sent him our book Suffering Is the Only Honest Work in January of 2018 and did not hear anything until this summer. He’d recently retired. Two of his daughters with his first wife had died since we last corresponded: one 11 months after I sent him Suffering, and another in 2019. I sent him When the Veil Comes Down. We communicate regularly about family history, grief and loss.
Layers. Sharing the stories of our common ancestors, if you’re willing, can flow to revealing our own personal adventures and challenges. And that is the place where deep connections are made.
David shared this observation with me:
I am frequently struck how this hobby, that is mostly names and dates, can take one to a place where we can feel the emotions of a person that lived long ago
I felt this very strongly as I wrote and shared the story of my 3rd Great Aunt MARY SAWYERS SWAN COOK (1839-1924). . I actually felt her presence as she led me from one nugget to the next, easily opening doors to the vaults that safeguarded her story, and pushed me to share her story as widely as I could. I included this observation in When the Veil Comes Down:
After spending so much time with Mary, I felt a bond with her. Because her story was so well preserved by extensive interviews she gave to newspapers over the years, I know her. I know her better than most of my aunts and uncles. If I bumped into Mary on the street tomorrow, I have no doubt we’d recognize each other, have a big hug, and sit down and have one fascinating conversation. I don’t think of her as dead. She feels very close and present.
And why not? Why is this any different than the closeness and the connection we feel with our children, parents, siblings or spouses who have transitioned more recently? If one believes, as I do, that death does not extinguish the person—the soul, the spirit—only the physical body, the shell; death does not touch love; our loved ones are just “over there,” in the “next room,” and always accessible to us and communicating with us, then of course our ancestors—also family and our blood—are accessible to us, no matter how many generations removed.
Those of us who have had readings with mediums have probably experienced our ancestors coming through and delivering messages to us. Although they generally defer to those who have passed more recently, Aunt Mary didn’t. She barged right in.
I am convinced that when I stumbled upon that piece of Mary’s story involving the sinking of the SS Central America in 1857, and began to research in earnest, Mary realized ‘I’ve got a live one here who’s actually doing something with my story!’ I opened the door and she jumped through.
I’m not surprised. She’s tough. Look what she survived—an attack on their wagon train, a shipwreck, the Civil War, a great fire and an earthquake. And she’s proud. As I am of her.
All you have to do is crack the door open and make a little noise. My old pal since childhood, George Blystone, said it best with this rephrase of the title of the wonderful Kevin Costner film: ‘Write it and they will come.’
So, what’s in your attic? Connecting with families not your own
As I researched the stories of my family, I came across some things that I strongly felt should be in the hands of folks not related to me. There were the two powerful poems written by my grandmother, Henrietta: one in 1942 about a neighbor’s son, Harrison “Hattie” Hannah, who was headed off to the war in Europe as a freshly minted fighter pilot; another penned in 1955 shortly after the death of a young man, Ralph Clapp, who had returned home from World War II and found it hard to return to “normal” life. I also stumbled upon some photos and letters from the 1940’s about a fellow referred to only as “the Duke.” It was readily apparent he and my father were very close and fought together in the same horrific battles in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. But I didn’t know his real name!
I felt compelled to learn more about these people, the depth of their connections to my family and, if possible, get these things into the hands of their surviving family members. I was of course motivated by what Emily Sue Buckberry had done for me and my family by finding and safeguarding the letter from my father and getting it to me 40 years later.
Once again, my Uncle Stan and Ancestry. com were extremely helpful in uncovering the mysteries and pulling together the stories that I put up on our website and Ancestry. It turns out, Ralph Clapp’s father worked for Vern Case as project manager on some big construction jobs in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the Cases and Clapps both lived in Long Beach. That is where Henrietta came to know young Ralph.
Harrison “Hattie” Hannah lived across the street from Henrietta and Vern Case in West Los Angeles. My mother and Hattie were classmates at University High. Stan remembered that Hattie’s P-38 fighter plane was shot down during a bombing run in Italy and he was pretty sure Hattie was killed. Turns out, he wasn’t.
Through sheer luck, I stumbled upon a 1946 Los Angeles Times article that I literally found in our attic. It was the announcement of the wedding of my parents and there was a photo of the groomsmen. I recognized “the Duke” from other photos with my dad, and that’s how I learned his real name is Kermit Warwick Ellison. That opened the door to uncovering more of his story and that he had two sons, about the same age as my brother and me.
I heard back from Ralph’s, Hattie’s and the Duke’s families and yes, they were surprised, and at the same time deeply touched and exceedingly grateful to receive the poems, photographs and memories they had not before seen or heard. Here’s a sample of the feedback.
Casey, I am the younger son of Kermit & Clarita Ellison. I found your article about my dad and your dad earlier this month while randomly googling my dad’s name & hometown in Michigan, to see if I could find more about his younger days. Your article blew me away. I’m not sure I could write a better remembrance of my dad! I have shared it with my brother and with my three sons. It has had an impact on all of us. Hope to hear from you. My heartfelt thanks and appreciation for your efforts in putting this together and posting it online. Jim
As Duke’s story came together, I found a couple of pictures in scrapbooks my packrat mother put together taken in 1961 when the Gauntt and Ellison families met up in Washington state.
Other friends and relatives of Kermit and his sons have found the story, reached out to me and I have in turn connected them with Jim. One fellow is Kermit Robinson. His father and the Duke were really good friends growing up and Mr. Robinson named his son Kermit. Jim did not know this. A cousin of Jim’s also found the story and they recently got together for a mini family reunion. They hadn’t seen each other in over 60 years.
Jim’s older brother, Bob, passed away shortly after Jim and I connected. I sent Jim Suffering Is the Only Honest Work and he’s read some of the other things on our website.
Researching family history is a lot of fun. You get to put on a detective’s hat, or miner’s helmet, and search for those nuggets about some of the characters and notorious events in your family. We all have them. And, as cousin David astutely observes, it’s a lot more than just names and dates. Family history can forge relationships and foster deeper connections within your own family, with folks outside your clan, and with ancestors who have transitioned generations ago.
Through connection we heal. Diving into the past can most definitely facilitate healing in the present. It sure has helped me.
My great-great grandparents, Jesse and Margaret Cameron Thompson, with their grandchildren in this photo taken in 1899 in Willits CA. My two-year-old grandfather, Vern Case, is seated in front, wearing a dress, God forbid, with his hand in his mouth.
This is a draft cover of the new book