Recycling Family Histories

The following is by my friend, Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske A born recycler, I have been fixing things all my life. Radios, bicycles, old cars, and furnaces. I mention furnaces because when I was dating Evie, my fine wife, I went to her house for the first time. It was a cool night and her furnace didn’t work. We didn’t know each other well enough to sit close together on the couch to get warm (I was very shy). She was a school teacher without a lot of money to fix the furnace and I ran a factory. I offered to take a look at the problem.

I knew that since the furnace was turning on and off for no reason, the problem was probably the thermostat line. So I wrote down the details of her furnace’s safety system and the next day invested $13 in a new line. On our next date I installed the part and the furnace worked famously. In a sense I had recycled her furnace. And in a sense my fate was sealed.

I mentioned factories. They are always in the recycling business. Everything from water to metals to oil to wire and just about anything else you can mention is subject to re-cycling. That part of the business may be the difference between profit and loss.

It was only natural that I recycled my genealogy work. I wrote articles, two or three books and posts for blogs from the little bit of work I did finding out who “Uncle Louie” was. And I did one thing more.

I had until Friday (September 3, 2010) at 12:25 P.M. an older brother. He had been an invalid for several years and had alienated his own family. I was the only one left he would speak to. In addition to telephone calls, I would write to him once a week. What did I write? Well, I ran out of subjects very quickly, so I began to use my genealogy detective work.

My brother loved to read about all the people in the family he knew, but did not know how they were related. Then I began to go back in time in Virginia and in Rhode Island and I found relationships to historical people. Nobody really famous, mind you, just people he had heard of. I always wanted to be related to the Randolphs or Jeffersons of Virginia, but alas, I could find nothing there. I did find ours were the people who lived down the street from the Randolphs and Jeffersons, and those who had a beer with them in Williamsburg.

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island was one of ours, but he had at least ten children and almost single-handedly founded the northern half of the nation. Besides, he was religious and very fair-minded. No scent of a scandal there. No fun at all.

So my brother lived on and I dug deeper, recycling true stories of our ancestors as I wrote to him each week. I found that simply laying out the stories for him, I was doing research. It helped me to explain, for the act of explaining led to asking questions about the who, what, when, where, and why of our ancestor’s actions. My research developed continuity because I wrote to my brother.

Occasionally my brother would add stories, things our mother had told him but not me. It seems our mother noticed that her middle son (I was the youngest) had “the third eye.” He saw things and had experiences none of the rest of us saw or did. Now that was really interesting. My published story, “A Memory Caught in a Cobweb” was one of his. I took him when he was still able to get around some, to our great-grandfather’s house. I had wangled a visit from its present owners. Built in 1859, it was a great old brick house that stood alone on a farm. It was in very good shape one hundred and forty years later when we saw it.

Even though my brother had never been in the old house before and could not see well, he knew where he was in each room and he knew all kinds of details about it. Our tour-guides and others on the tour were all a bit shaken by my brother’s statements. I was mystified, but I knew a good story when I heard it and used each one he felt confident enough to tell me.

My recycling paid off in several ways. It gave me something to write about, it helped me understand, it entertained an invalid brother, and it evoked tales from him that I could use.

And never once did he tell me about the horse thief that everyone else has in the family.

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