Friday, October 5, 2012

Road trip with my grandparents—and a new understanding of family

Royal and high-ranking families around the world keep painstakingly accurate records that preserve their ancestry and chart their lineage. The records document thousands of years of history and are worth safeguarding forever.

But if you’re not a member of one of those prestigious and few families, chances are the best knowledge you have today of your ancestors dates back just a few generations at most. That’s the case, for me, on the paternal side of my family. But the maternal side? It’s an entirely different—and amazing—story.

One of my second cousins on my mom’s side of the family, along with his wife, has spent years charting the Halcomb/Cobb family. They’ve traveled around the country tracking down leads, visiting libraries, monasteries and historical centers, all in the pursuit of documenting our family’s story.

It’s truly incredible. They’ve traced our roots all the way to William I, more commonly known as William the Conqueror, who was the first Norman King of England from 1066 to 1087.

I can hardly wrap my mind around it!

This past weekend, I took a road trip with my mom and grandparents to the Cobb family reunion in southeastern Kentucky. The reunion is held every year, but this was the first time I’ve been able to make it.

It’s something that’s very important to Grandpa, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday this month. While he speaks with many of these family members on a weekly or monthly basis on the phone, this annual reunion is generally the only time he sees many of them in person.

I’ve known that family and the associated gatherings are important to him, but it really wasn’t until recently that I realized just how important it is. Part of it is a generational difference, I believe, but it’s also a testament to the region where he grew up.

One of the sites I was most interested to visit on this trip was the old house where he spent much of his youth. The house—that he built himself—is still standing, structurally sound, and looks like it could be liveable with some TLC. The house is nestled in a valley (or “holler,” to use the regional lingo) alongside two barns, one tobacco, one livestock—that he also built himself—and is only accessible by an off-road vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Just around the corner from the house, a little farther down the one-lane, gravel "Bull Creek" road, is the family cemetery, which was our second stop. Cemeteries generally don’t mean much to me. I find it interesting to see especially old dates on headstones, but my interest usually ends there. But in visiting this cemetery last weekend, it did help me see how important it is to Grandpa, as well as the rest of the family who still live in the area. The graves are maintained by family members themselves, who take up a collection at the reunion each year to help pay for the mower’s gasoline and the flowers. My great-grandparents are buried there, along with dozens of other family members.

(It also helped me understand why Grandpa wanted to show me his own burial plot and headstone a month ago. It’s ready and waiting for him—all it needs is the death date and the actual burial. I found the experience weird and unsettling, but I could tell it was significant to him.)

The following day, the actual reunion didn’t start until 11:00, so we drove to the Cumberland Gap. We spent some time wandering outside and inside the Visitor’s Center, which included a small museum that documented the importance of this pass through the Appalachian Mountains. Daniel Boone helped to widen the trail through the Gap in 1775, making the passage to Kentucky and Tennessee easier for settlers to manage. Today you can drive through it via a ¾-mile tunnel.

(I should say that I actually spent most of my time at the Visitor’s Center wandering through the Southern Highlands Craft Guild’s store. That alone was worth the stop.)

At the reunion lunch, Grandpa was more social than I’ve ever seen him, and he made a point to work his way around the room talking to various people. He’s a revered figurehead in this family, known and respected by multiple generations. Several men and boys of the family are actually named after him.

To me, he’s always been Grandpa: honored WWII vet, skilled woodworker, sports enthusiast. But to the family in Kentucky, he’s the man who quit college to move home and help his mother after his father lost his eyesight. He’s the man who built his family’s house and barns. He’s the man who essentially raised his nephew when the boy’s parents proved to be incapable. He’s the patriarch. They’ve known him for decades longer than I have, and since he’s someone who doesn’t talk much about his life (without determined probing), I saw a side of him I never had before.

He may be days from his 92nd birthday, but his mind is still sharp as can be. It made me happy to know I made him happy by going to the reunion. I’d had the feeling that it was something I really needed to do, and I’m glad I got the chance to make the trip.

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