Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Glass Eye: Memories Fade, Records Preserve

On the scale of family history, memory is an ephemeral thing. Facts that are recorded -- for example, births, marriages, deaths, inheritances, or military service -- can be rediscovered generations later.  Oral history fades quickly, if not recorded, a memory can fade within a single lifetime.

I think that is why I am compelled to write this week. The only grandfather I knew died when I was in junior high school. I remember too little about him. The story about killing rattlesnakes. Walks to the Breckenridge's general store in Tingley. His old Model A Ford. The awful cigar smoke. Watching the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night  and the Friday night fights (boxing) on TV. The great Swede, Ingemar Johansson, was his idol. (When I looked at Wikipedia just now, I was surprised to learn that Johansson died only five years ago). I laugh when I remember the time he proudly made his first batch of popcorn (my parents were out for the night), using vinegar instead of Wesson Oil.

Oh, I also remember him taking out his glass eye to show my brother and me.  I don't recall ever wondering why he had a glass eye. I don't remember really thinking about what it was like to see with only one eye. I might have even thought he could see with through the glass eye.

John E. Hanson World War I draft registration, Ringgold County, Iowa
Over time, I might have forgotten about the glass eye, but unbeknownst to me, at least part of the story was preserved in records. I wish I could remember when and how I found the records, but I was just a hobbyist genealogist at the time and didn't keep a research log. John Emanuel Hanson's World War I draft registration described him as tall (an exaggeration, I think), of medium build, with blue eyes, and light-colored hair (not bald) -- a fair description of a Swedish young man. The form also asked about any lost arms, hands, legs, feet, or eyes. The answer: "lost one eye."

After my mother died, I remember finding a small box with the glass eye and a receipt from the  American company that sold it to him -- I think I am remembering correctly, but I honestly don't know what happened to the items. In any case, I assumed Grandpa must have lost his eye after coming to America.

S.S. Kensington passenger manifest, Quebec,28 September 1908
Wrong. He crossed the Atlantic on the S.S. Kensington with only one eye. The passenger manifest forms asked about physical defects of immigrants. In the case of Johan Emanuel Mansson: "lost left eye through accident." This record also gave a slightly different physical descripton: 5' 9", "fresh" complexion, reddish hair, grey eyes.

Remember the neighbor woman in Hyssna who told the story about Johan selling all his belongings before leaving for America? My memory is fuzzy, but I think I remember her also telling me that Johan had lost an eye in a farm accident. I am not a journal-keeping type, but I did keep a daily journal of our family trips to Sweden in 1993 and 1996. Had the neighbor lady told me the story, you would think I would have written it down. I did record some other interesting stories (next week's post), but perusing my journals today, I don't find the story of how Grandpa lost his eye.  However, the journal tells me that my memory was mostly correct when I wrote last week about Johan selling everything and his family worrying that he would not survive the trip. According to my journal, the neighbor woman didn't tell the story; Åke did.

Memories warp, then fade. Or, perhaps they fade, then warp. Anyway, unless recorded, they eventually go bad. A memory worth preserving is a memory worth writing down. This is why people  should write down family stories, but also why family history researchers are thankful for records that preserve information about their ancestors.

Next week, I will return to the Kensington passenger manifest for clues that will help unravel how Johan Mansson ended up in Iowa, where he was known as John Hanson.

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