Family History is for Everyone Spotlight: Retired English Teacher and Storyteller
by Ana Maria Cannon
Stories That Bind Us
One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting outside at night on the front porch, listening to my father tell jungle stories. Dad worked as a geologist, drilling for oil and water in countries around the world. As a young geologist right out of college, he landed his first job in the Amazon jungle. It was there that his daily experiences evolved into some of the most thrilling jungle stories. He told of the dangers of jungle life, such as wrestling a giant boa constrictor. He even owned a 20-foot long snake skin to prove it. He told of natives cooking him in a pot of water, tossing in carrots, onions, potatoes, and a pinch of salt.
How I thrilled each time he told me that story, especially the climax when he whistled for his faithful German Shepherd, named Wolf, to come to the rescue. Wolf came bounding through the jungle, breaking branches, leaping through the heavy foliage. Grabbing dad by the back of his shirt, Wolf pulled him from the pot of soup, liberating him from the hungry clutches of the jungle natives. Dad’s best story, however, was of the giant ants that devoured everything in their path, and the great attack they made on a nearby village where my father was drilling for oil. Dad and Wolf, of course, rescued the entire village from the ferocious ants.
Gifted storytellers seem to run in my father’s family. My father told me that his own father, Benjamin Jaramillo, was always the star of family dinners when many of the relatives came to visit. After dinner, the children rallied around him and begged him for a story: “Por favor, Tio Benjamin, una cuenta! Una cuenta!” And so Benjamin gathered them into the parlor, where all the children anxiously seated themselves on the floor in anticipation for one of his thrilling stories. My dad, a child himself at that time, recalled how proud he was of his father as he scanned the room of spellbound faces.
Storytelling has continued to have a binding impact on the lives of my family. From my grandfather holding his nieces and nephews spellbound, to my dad telling his children and grandchildren stories that terrified us yet endeared us so deeply to him. A few years ago I decided to record one of his jungle stories for his posterity. Even though dad was in his 70’s when I recorded the story, he held me captive with his deep voice, his dramatic hand gestures, his facial expressions, and his profound ability to tell the story and make me feel like I was right there, running for my life alongside him and Wolf. This story is an archived treasure for our family.
Storytelling and Family History
I, too, am a storyteller. Daily events often gel into stories from which I glean new insights for living. Seeing the story in the event has also given me a new perspective with family history. As I research records for ancestors, it is the stories behind the names that I am compelled to seek. Tracking the movements of the individual through research, the story begins to unravel, giving life and form beyond the mere scribbled name on a census record.
I imagine the heartbreak and trials of the woman whose husband died, leaving her with the farm to run, five children, and only a fifth grade education. I ponder the thoughts of the farmer living on the next farm down the road, also widowed with children, and the eventual marriage which united their efforts to help raise the children and support one another. Those were harsh days of survival, and one did what one had to do to make it. These are stories that can be pieced together through research.
A Story in Every Picture
Photographs are also a fascinating source of stories. How I love taking a large magnifying glass and moving it carefully over old, black and white photos, looking for clues and details that may reveal insights into the life of the individual.
One of my favorite photographs is of my great grandmother Carrie. I remember her always tending her massive gardens of flowers, wearing an old straw hat and faded apron with garden tools tucked in her pockets.
Imagine my surprise when I recently found a photograph of her as a teenage beauty, posing for a formal photo. Moving my magnifying glass over the photo, I examined the bows in her thick hair, which she had gracefully piled in layers on top of her head. I examined the rows of lace on her dress and her chunky high heels topped with bows as large as her shoes. How I love the slightly seductive smile on this brunette beauty! This wasn’t just a simple farm girl; this was a woman who at one time took great delight in fashion and knowing how to dress elegantly.
Gazing over my shoulder, my father whispered, “She was the most gentle, kindest woman I ever met. She welcomed me into the family with open arms.” Photographs are amazing for helping others remember small moments that can reveal treasures of insight into the life of an individual.
Honest Grandpa Vincent
These details, whether from tracking a life through research or from studying photographs, become a lantern in my hands, casting light on the long forgotten life of an individual.
Many of these stories are still in oral history format, but it is time now to begin crafting the stories and saving them. While FamilySearch provides a means for saving memories, I would love to write a book of family stories and have my grandchildren do the illustrations for the stories. This would be another wonderful way for posterity, especially children, to actually internalize the significant events of their ancestors.
Perhaps influencing the lives of younger generations is the most significant impact of stories.
When I told my grandchildren about their GG Grandpa Vincent who had taken part in the Oklahoma Land Rush, I explained how some of the people jumped the gun and claimed their land before the race began. One of my granddaughters looked up at me and asked, “But was grandpa one of the honest ones?” What a tender moment it was when I assured her that her grandpa had indeed waited for the signal. Perhaps someday she will need to remember him as her hero in a time when being honest may be the hard thing to do.
I am still in the beginning stages of researching, but even with my beginning skills, I can spot a story coming on and follow it like a hound in the woods after a rabbit trail. Although the rabbit often escapes me, the journey of finding a record here and there is often enough to captivate my imagination as I watch this faceless name start plowing the fields or hanging laundry, flapping in country winds as children run barefoot through gardens, dogs barking, neighbors calling . . .
Ana Maria is a retired English teacher, a convert to the LDS Church, and endeavors to teach children everywhere about the joys of family history. She cherishes her dear husband, children, and grandlittles who patiently listen to all her stories.