It didn't take much prompting for Granny to tell stories about the past. It might be at the breakfast table over her railroad strong coffee and biscuits served with bacon or on the front porch on a summer evening but she often told stories about her family. She spoke often of her father, Benjamin Hayward,
born in Eckington, Worcestershire, England on February 29, 1849 and her mother, Annie (George Ann), daughter of an Irish immigrant who fled the famine and married a Kentucky woman before coming to Missouri before the Civil War.
Her tales were epic and most of all, they were true. From those stories, I learned to revere my ancestors, to appreciate history, or to want to find out more.
That was step one in my almost lifelong passion with genealogy.
The next came when I was nine years old and our family headed to Swope Park in Kansas City for a multi-generational Lewis family reunion. My other grandmother was born Edna Lewis and although I knew a few names and details, on that day I learned much more.
It was a large gathering and I knew few people outside my own family circle. My mom took me over to meet her great-uncle Paul Lewis, her grandpa's youngest brother.
My first sight of him is a memory snapshot I will never forget. He was old, seated in a lawn chair and after one glance at me, he told my mother to leave me with him.
My mom, whose respect seemed tinged with a little fear, hesitated but he prevailed.
Although I could be sometimes shy as a child when out of my familiar element, I wanted to stay with the old man.
He had heard about a poem I'd written for the local children's page in the St. Joseph Gazette that referenced the olden days and wagon trains. Apparently that caught his interest and upon meeting me, he decided I was the one child of many at the reunion who would care about family history and the past.
He told me that I came from those pioneers and talked to me for a very long time about the Lewis family while I sat at his feet, rapt with attention, in the grass.
And, although I didn't remember everything he told me, he sparked a passion in me for tracing my family history.
Between Granny's stories and Uncle Paul's tales, my desire to know my ancestors became a driving force.
From that age onward, I talked to the oldest members of the family on all sides. I wrote letters to those who lived far away, from Ohio to West Berlin. I searched through phone books and by my teens, sent off for records ranging from death certificates to citizenship papers. I solved mysteries, I found relatives lost long ago, and discovered new details.
I gathered photos and names and dates and stories.
I matched legend with fact.
And I still follow the family lines.
My fascination with family history inspired a love of all history.
I have traveled to places in Virginia where some of my Lewis ancestors settled after arriving from Belfast in Ireland to fight in the Revolutionary War. On my dad's side, the Zumwalts did the same before coming out to the wilds of Missouri to built Fort Zumwalt where a chimney remains of my ancestor's cabin. There, they intermarried with the Boones - of Daniel Boone fame.
It's Decoration Day - or Memorial Day this weekend. It's traditionally a time to pay respects to the deceased - something I do every day, those who are near and those who are far. It just took a pandemic to remind many that's it's more than a kick start to summer!
-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is the community editor of The Neosho Daily News and The Aurora Advertiser. She is also a novelist and an avid genealogist.