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Take some time and listen to what the ‘old folks’ have to say

James Riley Byars and Susan Lesley Byars, my 2nd great-grandparents

James Riley Byars and Susan Lesley Byars, my 2nd great-grandparents

When I was a child I used to dread going to the annual family reunion and hearing the old folks talk about the good ol’ days.
Boring.
What I’d give to have just one of those “boring” days back again.
I never paid attention to what they were talking about, and when I did happen to overhear something that piqued my interest, I seldom gave it a second thought after the food was eaten and everyone went their separate ways for another year.
One of the stories I overheard as a child was that the reunion site – Table Rock State Park in South Carolina – was built on old family land, and the trails, waterfalls and mountaintops had belonged to my mother’s family since the late 1700s. They claimed the family had been forced to sell the land during the depression to make way for what became the state park and a county water reservoir.
Years later when I began tracing my family tree I was astonished to learn that the old folks’ “tale” was the absolute truth. The lake where I paddled a boat and swam on hot reunion afternoons as a child used to be the family cornfield, and much of that corn made its way into home-brew white lightning that the family sold to help make ends meet. They were land-rich and cash-poor.
Anna’s parents are both in their mid-90s, and the older I get the more I appreciate hearing their stories about days gone by in Lincoln County. Her parents’ ancestors helped settle Lincoln County, and a few of their stories and traditions were passed down from generation to generation. That kind of history seldom makes it into the history books, but is precious to family members.
What they don’t think is important or interesting, I find absolutely amazing.
I thought about the old family stories as I researched this week’s feature on the “Invisible Dead,” and once again was disappointed in the lack of written history about the old families of east Lincoln, and especially the black families.
You can dust off books that have chapters on the rich and the privileged white people of east Lincoln, but very little has been recorded about “regular” folks – black or white – and nearly nothing about black families and the slaves whose sweat and labor put Lincoln County on the map.
I bring all of this up as a challenge to everyone reading this column: Don’t let the “old folks” you know leave this world without taking the time to sit down and ask them to tell you about their lives.
Ask them about their childhoods, their favorite memories, their biggest disappointments, their hopes, their fears. The loves they had. The loves they lost. Ask them about school, their chores, family dinners. Get them to talk about the house they grew up in and any family traditions.
Get them to share with you everything they can recall about their parents, grandparents and the oldest person they knew as a child. How did they look? Did grandpa have a beard? Did great-grandma smoke a corn pipe? Ask them to talk about weddings, funerals and other special occasions.
And don’t forget to ask them about big days in history that occurred in their lives.
Most of all, just listen. Have some way to record the conversations so you can pay attention to what they say and ask follow-up questions. (Have a list of questions in advance).
When you’re finished, write what you have. You don’t have to be Hemingway. Just put it in writing and share it with the family. Believe me, years from now someone will be very glad you did.