“I am very glad to hear your corn looks so pretty.”
- Dandridge Cockrell in a letter to his wife Naomi, 1862
The thing I like the most about recording family history is that it meets a deep cultural need. It helps people connect and feel part of a larger story. There is so much in or current way of life that makes us feel isolated and disconnected. Knowing more family stories shows our interconnectedness and highlights the miracle of our own existence.
During the Civil War, my 3x great grandmother Naomi Bush Cockrell raised six children while her husband Dandridge fought in the 9th Virginia Cavalry. A diphtheria outbreak raged and every sign of sickness in the children was met with dread. By the end of the war all the men in town had been conscripted and she wrote to her husband that she feared for her family’s safety. Naomi was known to have “kept her gun ready and handy.” She managed to raise crops and livestock. She made thread, wove it into cloth and sewed all their clothes. She kept everyone fed and nursed sick children. Without her tenacity, I would not be here. Naomi’s story is admirable, but not unique. If you are here on earth today, you owe that miracle to some hardy ancestors.
In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari suggests that feeling disconnected is a key contributor to depression. He argues that connections to meaningful work, other people, and the natural world is essential to our well-being. Furthermore, modern society is structured in a way that makes these connections incredibly difficult. Family history is one way to highlight the connections we already have to people and places.
While I was working on the publication of my father’s childhood memoir, I learned my father’s first refrigerator was a springhouse – a small structure built over a cold spring where the family kept crocks of milk, cream and cottage cheese. It was a shock to realize that I am only one generation removed from nature providing my refrigeration. The connection to something I thought of as the “old days” is not as distant as I had imagined.
Naomi and Dandridge wrote letters to each other during the Civil War. Their letters discuss their farm and livestock. Dandridge writes that he is glad “her corn is looking pretty.” I can barely comprehend that connection to nature, but I somehow feel emboldened to know I am at least connected to people who were so, literally, “grounded”.
While I am not particularly interested in building a springhouse (I confess I adore my refrigerator’s ice maker), I can be confident that I come from people who understood their interdependence and find my own ways to connect.