The first time I read The Giver by Lois Lowry, I was in my late teens or early twenties attending college. I was instantly struck by the lack of true joy that existed in the community because of the absence of historical knowledge and freedom of choice. The stripping away of freedoms, the complete control of the environment – even the weather itself – eventually led to a deterioration in all that makes us human. No one chose their own career, spouse, number of children, what to eat. They took daily “vitamins” to control their sexual urges. Children were bred and then placed with families. Members of the community were instructed in every way. They even lost their ability to see color.
But there was one community member who was the “Keeper of Memories”. This community elder was tasked to contain all knowledge of the past. He held the memories of snow, music, dance, colors, taste, love, fear, courage, war, death, hunger, and everything in life that has the potential to bring pain. He alone could advise the other village elders on matters they did not understand. He alone kept the memories of humanity.
Jonas, the main character of the story, is selected to be the next “Keeper of Memories” and begins to meet with the man for whom the book is titled. The Giver slowly pours memories into Jonas. He begins with pleasant memories. As time passes Jonas learns all that has been taken from him and his community members. He learns that joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. That the deeper we love, the deeper our loss when death comes.
Genealogists are also Keepers of Memories. Memories of family members and their lives. Memories of facts and stories. Memories of how our family members fit into history. We research, archive, write, analyze, preserve, store, share, and most of all – we tell.
Genealogists may be the Keepers of Memories for their families. But they are nothing like Lowry’s Keeper of Memories. We tell everything we can, to everyone who will listen.
We pay a price for our role as Keepers. We give up time, money, space in our homes and hearts. We have rooms filled with boxes, photos, albums, records, and artifacts. We pay far more than we would ever admit for supplies, trips, education, books, records, and subscriptions. We spend more time than even exists in a normal person’s week on our work. We fill our hearts to overflowing with connections, memories, and love for people – many of whom we have never met.
There is another price we pay.
It is sharp, gut wrenching pain.
Pain that comes when we open a death record for a little baby and read that they died of measles in their infancy. Pain we feel again when we hear people refusing vaccines for their children. Because we know. We have read the records and seen child after child in the same family die of diseases that are preventable today.
Pain that comes when we learn that some ancestor was intentionally harmed by someone. Or even worse, when we learn that a member of our family chose to cause harm to someone.
Pain that comes when we doggedly chase lead after lead after lead, hoping to find that one record, that one fact that will finally poke a hole in our brick wall only to face disappointment.
Pain that comes when we have some simple daily reminder of how we lost someone that we love more than we can possibly say.
That happened to me this weekend.
I was watching something from my DVR. An old episode of Long Lost Family that I hadn’t watched yet. When it finished and I clicked delete, the TV went right to the channel it was on and a commercial began to play at that moment. The moment I clicked the off button was the exact moment I heard “…cures Hep C…”. I instantly turned the TV back on and sobbed as I watched a commercial for the first time, advertising a new wonder drug that can cure Hepatitis C in a few weeks or months with a 95% cure rate.*
My heart immediately ached for my Grandpa Peterson. A man that I loved with my whole heart. A man who was good and loving and selfless. A man who always had time to listen and help. A grandpa like no other. A grandpa who spent time with me – lots of time. He was a Mormon Missionary, a Marine, a University Professor, a Psychologist, a Church Leader, a Marriage and Family Therapist, a School Board President, a good neighbor, and an outstanding son, husband, father, brother, and grandfather.
He died about the same time that I first read The Giver. I was 20 years old when he passed. It was a punch to the gut.
He died of complications from Hepatitis C that he contracted from a blood transfusion in the eighties. Near the end, he had Congestive Heart Failure that was so advanced he slept in a wooden rocking chair most nights. He tried everything the doctors suggested. He tried Interferon treatments that left him even sicker, much like chemo treatments. He was on a no salt diet and meds for his CHF. Nothing was working. As a last ditch effort, he had heart surgery. There was a slim chance he would recover and then they could give him a liver transplant. But he never left the hospital. He died two weeks later, three weeks after his 71st birthday.
As I watched the commercial, I sobbed for the years that I lost with my Grandpa. And I thought about how we, as our family’s Keeper of Memories, can’t help but connect everything we see, hear, read, and experience to some part of our family’s history. I’m not the only member of my family who remembers how we lost Grandpa. There are plenty of others who share in the same pain. But there are so many other parts of our family story that are kept only by me.
I am my family’s Keeper of Memories. I pay a price because of that. But it is a price I would pay again and again because the joy, understanding, and connections that come, outweigh the price every single day. Even on the days when a TV commercial reminds me of one of my greatest losses. The depth of my pain only exists because of the depth of my love and the joyful memories of a grandfather who loved being a grandfather – who loved me completely and let me know it.
I treasure my role as Keeper of Memories for my family. I don’t need that red sled. I’m staying in this role until I know it’s time to pass the torch. I will keep telling everyone in my family who will listen, the precious tid-bits about our past.
My Grandpa is one of the reasons I embraced this role that came to me. His memory should never be forgotten. I will do my best to make sure it isn’t.
What joy and pain have come to you as your family’s Keeper of Memories?
*I’m not sure if I got the numbers from the commercial exactly right. That is what I recall. I didn’t want to find it and watch it again.
ps – I believe that Families can be Forever. This belief means that the flip side of my pain in missing my Grandpa is the joy of knowing I will see him again. I treasure that knowledge. His death was the first that I experienced in my family. (Not counting great grandparents who I didn’t know nearly as well.) That, and the manner in which he died, and the strength of our relationship, have made his loss more painful than many others I have experienced. Which makes my gratitude for Eternal Families even deeper. You can read more about what I believe here.