The Price That We Pay as the Keepers of the Memories

PETERSON, Grandma and Grandpa with Kent kids, 1987
My siblings and I with our grandparents – Ronald and Margaret Peterson.  1987

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.

28 thoughts on “The Price That We Pay as the Keepers of the Memories”

  1. Amberley, that is a lovely post. I love the idea that we are the Keepers of Memories! And, yes it can be painful & cluttered but it is rewarding to keep our family members ‘alive’ as we share them in our blogs & books.

  2. Very touching post, Amberly. I am sorry about your grandfather. But isn’t it also wonderful that science continues to find new ways to improve medical treatments? When I find all those heartbreaking stories about infant mortality, TB, the Spanish flu, polio, etc., I am so grateful to modern medicine and the things we now take for granted.

    1. Thank you Amy. Yes, I am so grateful for all of the medical advancements that we benefit from today. I’m sure you have seen as many deaths as I have from diseases and illnesses that aren’t a problem today. We are so blessed.

      1. Yes, we are. We tend to take it for granted, but doing this work has made me aware of how risky life was even 75 years ago before the widespread use of penicillin. Scary.

        1. Yes! I just helped someone learn a bit about Scottish research. We found a death record for an 18 year old young man who was a miner who died of double pneumonia. That would not happen today – unless of course there were other factors. But this would have been a strong boy. He just needed antibiotics and rest probably.

  3. Very thoughtully written. I experienced the same kind of pain when I read about my Boles’ relatives and how my grandfather’s twin died of lung disease when he was thirteen. Breathing that coal dust in Lanarkshilre and knowing their future would be to go down the mines was a hard way of life and often resulted in early death. It is a responsibility to be a memory keeper but also an opportunity to be thankful every day for the legacy they left me.

    1. Thank you Sheila. I couldn’t have said it better myself. My heart aches for the hard lives our Scottish ancestors lived, but it also fills with gratitude that they were willing to sacrifice so much for us. I, too, am thankful everyday for them.

  4. It is not because we are the keeper of memories that we feel the joy and the pain of our family. It is because we can feel these emotions so deeply that we become the family’s keeper of memories. I have found out some dreadful items about my family, that I still struggle with. I have also found great strength and honor in generation after generation. I look at all like a great story worthy of being written by Charles Dickens, only it is all true.

    Also knowing you through your excellent blog I can say with certainty you have done your grandfather proud.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Charles. I hadn’t thought about it this way, but I think you are exactly right. This calling of being the family historian really does come to us because of who we are at heart. And thank you for saying that I have made my grandfather proud, I really appreciate that. <3

  5. This is a lovely post Amberly, and I think Charles makes a really good point too. I first got interested in family history to help my mum know more about her beloved grandfather’s life and family. There were so many tragic stories in that one family that had been shrouded in silence and glossed over — for all sorts of reasons. Although much of what we have found is very painful, neither of us would have it any other way.

    1. Thank you Su. I also think Charles’ point is excellent. Even the difficult discoveries help us understand our past and our family. All of it is worth it. You are so lucky to have worked with your mother on your family history. My mom isn’t interested enough that we have really worked on it together. I give her updates sometimes, but not much more than that. Maybe one day.

      1. I do feel lucky that mum is so interested. She has always been the family storyteller, and it’s interesting teasing out the fact from the fiction in the stories I’ve heard again and again over the years. A couple of times it’s been difficult to tell mum the truth about something as it is so different from the version she was told by older generations. But she’s great about it.

            1. That is awesome too! My littlest one is taking an interest – on a 5 year old level. On Memorial Day when we were wandering the cemetery, he said, “Mom, what if we found Rosey Hyde in here? That would be cool, right?” I chuckled in surprise. I hadn’t talked about Rosey in well over a month and hardly ever talked about her in front of him – given the nature of my research around her and not wanting too many questions from him since I try to always answer my children completely. Despite all that, Rosey stuck. He loves it all.

  6. Dear Amberly,

    Thank you so much for this lovely and insightful posting! You inspired me to write here too:


    Valerie Curren

    In contemplating some of that historical &/or personal pain, these experiences have shaped us all, including our forbears, into who we are. Although many of us have and do travel perilous paths, these journeys build our character and may lead to such unexpected joy here on earth, & certainly in the Life to Come. I believe there is a lyric in a Contemporary Christian song that says it so well, “I bless the broken road that’s brought me here to you!”

  7. Oh dear, this is so sad. I am so sorry about your grandpa. What an upstanding man he was. There has been a lot of pain in what I found, particularly for my great-great-grandfather Peter Mulder. But also studying what happened to some of the women in the family, oh wow. I haven’t told you this before, Amberly, but I wrote a poetry and flash nonfiction chapbook taking the events in the lives of my ancestors–in so some cases the sad ones that involve infant mortality, terrible accidents, etc.–and it’s being published this summer by Finishing Line Press. If you don’t want the link on here, I understand. But in case you are interested to see these family history blog posts turn into lyrical poetry and lyrical prose, here it is:
    By the way, the prose piece in here about Peter Mulder was written before I was contacted by my relative in the Netherlands who had a letter from Peter after his Nellie passed away. It was interesting to see the connections.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Luanne. I can’t wait to read your book! I love the personal growth and empathy I have gained because of my deep love for my family and it’s history. Don’t you feel like the immersive experience of research brings it all to life? I feel so connected to so many dead people. My husband jokes that when I die I will have the biggest welcome party ever. Haha. BTW, is Finishing Line Press the best place to buy your book? <3

      1. I also feel that I have gained so much in empathy from genealogy. I doubt people would understand that if they are looking at the process from the outside. Once Kin Types is released it will be available on Amazon. It’s true about the welcome party! Also, I feel comforted that I have all these relatives I never knew I had before!

  8. A beautiful and touching post, Amberly. How very grateful I am that our faith teaches that families can be together again. I can’t imagine never seeing again the family, friends, and loved ones who have passed on ahead of me.

  9. What a wonderful post! Joy and pain mingled, just as you say. I cried for my great-grandmother who lost three children, two within a year of each other. And for her mother, who also lost three children…and for my grandfather who died alone in the wilds of the Soviet Union from cholera during WWII after being separated from his family when they were all arrested in eastern Poland and deported to Sibera… I feel all these stories, and so many more. Writing them down is my way of honouring my ancestors…without them, I wouldn’t be me.

    1. Thank you Teresa! Those early child losses are hard. So is any death relating to WWII – such a tragic loss of life on all sides. But I completely agree, we are who we are because of them. The writing of their story is a great way to honor them.

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