Saturday, February 2, 2013

Backstory: Archie and Sarah — Groundhog’s Day revisited

Backstory is important.  It defines a character, gives a hint of where they are from, what they are made of, and where they may be heading.  Rarely do I reach back into my own past, or if I do, I rarely share it.  There are holes there that will never be filled, branches of my family tree that will forever remain blank. 

Looking back can be painful, or arise curiosity, or lead to a great discovery that satisfies questions you didn’t know you had.  Most people experience the same thing, unless they are into genealogy—which I’m not, at least deeply.  As a writer, I have created family trees for my characters, forced them to intertwine through history as I told their story, while my own backstory has remained somewhat a mystery—by design, by my own unwillingness to look over my shoulder, and by the choice of the universe.  Some things are just the way they are. 

But I’ve always known a little bit of family history, it was passed down to me, bits of it forged into my memory with purpose.  Most all of us know little pieces of family history.  Who our grandparents are/were, maybe how they came to America, maybe not.  I knew I was Dutch/Irish with a dose of German thrown in for good measure.  I know little of my family’s journey to America, of lives past, but I’m learning more—and mostly those stories, like most stories, were right under my nose.  Or in a plastic bag stuffed in the back of a closet.  That’s usually how backstory works—it’s right there for the taking.

Today (2/2/2013) is my great grandmother’s birthday.  Sarah  Ann (Varner) Byrne was born 144 years ago in Olney, Illinois in 1869 (she is my grandfather’s mother, on mother’s side).  My mom would always remind me on Groundhog’s Day that it was also Grandma Byrne’s birthday.  Every year.  So I wouldn’t forget—because, of course, by the time I had been born in 1960, Sarah had died (in 1956).  I never knew her.  Just that her birthday was on Groundhog’s Day, that she lived into her 80s, had 12 kids, and that her husband, my great grandfather, Archie, had died some 30 years earlier—of lockjaw.  Archie was born on February 3, 1865 in Grayville, Illinois—just as the Civil War was winding down. Groundhog’s day covered them both, was part of their story, probably in ways I’ll never know.

I have no idea how Archie and Sarah met, what brought them together.  I know very little of their story.  I also don’t know anything about their parents, who they were, where they came from, why they were in Illinois, where they allegiances lay-or many of their children's stories.  I know I could find out, that I could dig into the genealogy, into the yellowed papers, and records and musty smelling rooms that hold secrets that I might not want to know, and maybe I will.  I like that kind of stuff.   

I know there are countless stories yet to discover.  Too many.  I will never know them all.  But I am glad to have that plastic bag that was stuffed back in the closet that I’m starting to go through.  My mom made sure I had it.  Just like she made sure I wouldn’t forget that Groundhog’s Day was Grandma Byrne’s birthday, and the day after was Archie’s birthday.  Some things you never forget. 


front row: Ted (grandpa), Loy, Josie-holding Loren, Violet, Archie-holding Darlene, Sarah-holding Pete, Viona, Beulah-holding Herschel
back row: Flossie, Ernest, Mabel, Foster, Maudie, Evert, Lillian, Callie, Alba 



Tom Cochrun said...

Great family photo. I am always amazed at how formally such an event was undertaken. It must have been a significant family moment.

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Thanks, Tom. I'm not sure when this was taken or why. Looks like it's around 1916 or 1917.