Family Stories

18 Jun

We’re both new parents in our 40’s. There aren’t major differences between new parents in their 20’s and new parents in their forties – both are learning as they go on the wonderful journey of parenthood. Perhaps there are subtle differences: finances may be in order, careers more established, and older couples are more settled. Most people are a bit more tempered and practical at 40 than they were at 20.

But one thing I do think is different is we seem to have an increased sense of urgency about researching family history. Maybe it’s because our daughter is “new”; maybe it’s because we are older and subsequently our parents are older. We think more about the possibility of caring for aging relatives than we once did. And I know our sense of urgency is amplified by the fact that we are from two different cultures. I was born and raised in the US; my husband was born and raised in Japan. We both live far from our families and there is the strong possibility that there are relatives she will never know. I sit here and I think, what will be our family story?

I used to wish for the day when I could discover some secret hidden diary that would reveal all of my families’ secrets. It is the writer in me that has a tendency for the theatrical. I have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that such a thing is not likely to happen. I will not receive a stash of hidden wartime love letters or stumble across the name of a grandparent in declassified government files. A mysterious stranger will not show up on my doorstep claiming to be a long lost sibling nor will the discovery of keys to a safety deposit box lead me on an intercontinental chase.

If my husband and I are lucky in our family research we will track down some birth certificates. Perhaps, we’ll find a yellowed piece of paper where someone had attempted to write a family tree or an old Bible with everyone’s names spelled correctly. We currently have two cardboard boxes of photographs with names scrawled on the back. We spend long afternoons trying to put names to faces that we barely recognize. I received several photos at a family reunion. They were left over from my grandmother’s things when she passed away. When I don’t know who is in the picture – which I am ashamed to admit is often – I make up little stories about them to whisper in my daughter’s ear.

My husband has photos stuffed in envelopes. Many of the people he cannot identify beyond “aunt” and “uncle”. Though, like most people, he does much better with cousins from his own generation. Japan has a complex system of record-keeping, so a few years ago, he decided to go through city office records and gather any information that he could.

There is a part of me that envies the ability to have such ample paper records. For most of my family’s African American history, those sorts of things are not possible. Slaves were not considered people. Even when slavery ended, most poor, ‘colored’ people were simply not considered important enough to register or have their lives recorded. If it were not for the work of dedicated scholars – like the late John Hope Franklin – the importance of keeping African American history would be lost.

I am fortunate my maternal grandparents’ hometown was one of the first freed “colored towns” – in the nomenclature of the time. Their town was the subject of a research project and though my family was not directly mentioned I was able to get something other African Americans do not often get – a peek into the lives of my forebears and the town they helped to build.

I end with this anecdote. I once attended a seminar on memoir writing. One woman was a particularly gifted storyteller. She delivered a grand tale about some long gone uncles and aunts. It was filled with picturesque descriptions, elaborate gestures, and lots of jokes. At the end of her performance, she confessed that she wasn’t sure if the uncle and aunt in the story were actual blood relatives. Nor was she certain that she had the correct year or the proper names of all the characters.

But did any of us care? Not at all, because it was a great story.

 

Winnie Shiraishi is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She’s an expat American writer living in Japan. Her work has appeared in Tokyo Art Beat blog, Kyoto Journal, and other publications. She can be reached at wsinjapan [at]gmail [dot] com.

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