Reading Amy’s account of visiting her Seligman family members’ burial place in Santa Fe, (My Ancestral Town, Santa Fe, New Mexico in Brotmanblog: A Family Journey) made me think about a wet and cold afternoon I spent in a tiny churchyard in rural Perthshire, Scotland, looking for the resting place of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Ann Cunnison.
I originally wrote about this in a post called On Stilled Voices and Visualising Silence.
Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.
Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.
Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.
But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.
If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.
Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have seen the point in visiting places just because my ancestors had lived there. But as I have become more and more interested in my family history, I’ve realised the power of any tangible reminder (photographs, objects, places) of those long gone. I’ve learned to listen to those echoes of past lives, and to hear traces of my own voice there too.