Gathering family stories together is about more than names and dates. Much more, in fact.
For me the work also carries with it certain spiritual dimension. Through discussions with living family members combined with my own memories, I am able to extend the lives of my relatives beyond the grave.
All of us called to do this work are a kind of ghost whisperer, conjuring our dearly departed ones from the edges of our minds and bringing them to life again through the beauty of the internet.
My great grandmother, Martha “Petee” Lapin, was born in Rush Center, Kansas in 1883. She was married at 16 and buried a baby daughter within a year. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Of her remaining three children, one boy was dead at 3 and a second son died by 28. Only my grandmother lived to be almost a hundred.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Life was extraordinarily hard for her in many ways. But like so many western women, she made the very best of it, planting and canning with each new season; moving to find work, including leaving her adolescent daughter with friends to work the oil fields of Texas; celebrating her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
She was one of the shortest people I’ve ever known. In this photo I am probably 7 and almost as tall as she is. Were she to step off the back porch, we would probably be the same height.
I remember this back porch very well. In our time together she had already lived in this tiny house for probably thirty years. When I was a kid and visiting her and my grandparents and my two aunts, I stayed in the tiny house opposite the one in the picture below. My grandparents and aunts lived in the second house for a few years.
The outhouse I used as a kid is behind her, the tiny house-like structure sitting in front of the mountain.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
She is probably in her mid to late 40s in this picture. My father thinks the two unknown adults might be the couple who “opened their home in Denver to mother when she was attending East high school and Petee was in the oil camps.”⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Our time together was short. In all my memories she had lost her eyesight and most of her hearing. In 1975 Montgomery Wards, the old catalogue department store, transferred my father and us to Hong Kong.
Sometime between the photo of me and Petee on the back porch and 1975 Petee moved in with my grandmother and grandfather and succumbed to the ravages of dementia.
Like so many children, my grandmother cared for her until her death, washing and feeding her, and distracting me and others when Petee would follow whatever haunted her mind and scream her lungs out. Sometimes she yelled for what seemed like hours at a time. By 1976 she was dead.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
If anything, I grew up, not with Petee the person, but with Petee, the legend: tiny western woman, a single mom, working odd jobs, doing what had to be done, before indoor electricity, before indoor plumbing and before indoor heating. ⠀
The legend grew out of the truth of her life. But we never had opportunities to discuss her life, her choices or her interpretation of all of what happened to her. Even so, she seemed bad ass to me.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Her life always reminded me of the Hank Williams, Jr. lines from “A Country Boy Can Survive“⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can plow a field all day long /⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can catch catfish from dusk ’til dawn/ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Our family line will end when my brother and I pass on. When I go there won’t be anyone to remember Petee, or me, quite frankly. The work I am called to do with my grandfather’s photography archives is a spiritual one.
These memories and reflections, are, for the time I am alive, a kind of life after death for Petee and my grandmother and grandfather.