I stared back at the seasoned author who had asked me a question during a writing seminar. I was there to learn from her, not be drilled about my motives. But I knew she was right. There had to be a reason I felt so compelled to write about my ancestors. There was a purpose to the desire God had placed in my heart, and I realized later it had come many years before I decided to take up my novelist’s pen.
At the time the question stumped me. “Because," I said, "we can all learn so much from history and the sacrifices made for us."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because it's important to know who you are."
"Why is it important?"
"Uh, because then we will know where our place in the world is."
"Why, why, why?"
The question took me back to my childhood. I had not had a difficult upbringing, not like many other people. My parents were married, they loved me, they gave me opportunities. I am the youngest in the family by nearly seven years, and that’s because both my parents were married previously. My mother had three young daughters when her husband passed away. She married my father when the youngest was four. They decided to wait a few years to have me so that the girls could get settled in with their adoptive father. The result, though, was that my sisters were close and I was left behind. They loved me, but more like a mother loves a child. They grew up without me, and because of that our relationship was different. When we went to visit my paternal grandmother in her apartment it was just me, my parents, my grandmother, and her sister. Needless to say, there was not much to entertain a young girl. I was bored. I was lonely. I did not feel connected.
And then I found my grandmother’s photo albums. While the adults visited I flipped through the spiral bound self-adhesive pages and stared at the black and white photographs. Who were these people and was I anything like them? My grandmother knew the names of the faces plastered in her book, but little else. When I tried to ask questions I was only presented with more mysteries.
What nationality are we?
I suppose Irish.
When did we come to America?
I don’t know. Seems like our family’s always been here. I was told I had a cousin who was French Canadian, though.
Why did my great grandparents move to Chicago?
I don’t know. They just did.
My great aunt did have an intriguing story to tell about seeing John Dillinger get shot just outside her apartment building. Intriguing perhaps, but John Dillinger was not my family.
My mother’s family was a little more forthcoming with details, but the stories and names they spoke of were confusing. Who was who?
And then my mother gave me a book for Christmas that changed everything. The front spelled the words “Our Family Heritage” in gold letters, and inside were charts for names and dates and pages to fill in stories about churches, occupations, military histories, and a lot more. I was hooked. I launched into a search for my family roots and found wings for my desire to be connected in a deeper way. Later I would turn this into fiction because I believe God wants me, all of us, to remember these stories, to appreciate the trials and successes of those who came before, and to realize that he puts us into a family in order to learn wisdom, courage, and the faith to follow where he leads.
I do still at times feel disconnected from the family I was born into because of the span of years and differences in experiences. But whenever that happens the miracle of stories pulls me closer. I never knew some of the older relatives that my sisters did, but I cherished the stories they told. When I dug deeper I discovered ancestors who came to this country to make a better life for their children, who objected to the oppression of Quakers and slaves, who founded churches and Sunday school classes in the wilderness, who fought and suffered through wars, who mourned the losses of spouses and children much to soon, but who carried on and trusted God. And they did that for me and my future, whether they knew me or not. That is why I write about legacies that can otherwise be too easily forgotten. It keeps me from feeling lonely. I write so that readers won’t feel lonely either because we are part of God’s family that touches many generations, across continents, and through the ages.
Cindy Thomson is a writer and an avid genealogy enthusiast. Her love of history and her Scots-Irish heritage have inspired much of her writing, including her new Ellis Island series.
Cindy is also the author of:
- Brigid of Ireland and Celtic Wisdom: Treasures from Ireland.
- She combined her love of history and baseball to co-author the biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, which was a finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research's Larry Ritter Book Award.
- In addition to books, Cindy has written on a regular basis for numerous online and print publications