Looking Back

To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, or a tree without a root.
— Chinese proverb

I’ve been walking around with a tiny framed photo of my grandfather Wallace in my pocket for a couple of days now. I snatched it from an old shoe box that was tucked into the back of the hutch in my parent’s condo. The photo is of my mom’s father and it’s the only one I know that exists.

It has been four years since mom passed away and my siblings and I recently moved dad into an assisted living facility. It has been a bittersweet process sorting through the belongings left behind from my parent’s life together and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of.

Neither of my parents shared much about their childhood with us kids. I know my mom’s mother passed away from cancer at an early age, leaving my mom and her three sisters to fend for themselves while their father, a postal clerk for the Boston and Lowell Railroad, spent most of his free time at the horse track. My mom was the second oldest and left with a lot of responsibility and she took to it well. She was always extremely self-reliant and passed those qualities onto us kids.

My grandfather passed away when I was seven so my recollection of him is very faint. He visited us infrequently even though he lived in Somerville which was easily assessible to our home in Winthrop by public transportation. When he did come to visit, I remember my sister and I would greet him at the bus stop and we'd each take a hand as he exited the bus and cheerily walk with him the few blocks back to our home. He would play a game of chess with my father before dinner and depart soon after dessert. I recollect that on the day he passed away, he had plans to take my brother to a baseball game. Perhaps he was starting to form a bond with his grandchildren that he was unable to form with his daughters?

In the photo, he looks distinguished in his collared shirt and buttoned up cardigan and serious expression. I see my mom and my aunts (and myself for that matter) in his image. I was curious to know more about him so after some research I discovered that his father passed away at a very early age, leaving him and his mom on their own. The same circumstances had befallen his grandfather as well. I can conjure up how difficult it may have been for my grandfather to have been brought up without a strong father figure and then have the fortune of being left to raise four young daughters alone. Perhaps I can understand why he escaped to the horses.

With the surname of Wallace, we all assumed our family lineage led back to Scotland. So I was very surprised when I learned that the Wallace name was adapted several generations ago from the original name of Waltz! In the early 1750’s, 1,500 young Germans were enlisted to migrate to rural Waldoboro, Maine to work in the shipbuilding industry. They were promised a better life but upon arrival, the young immigrants learned things were going to be much more difficult than what was sold to them. Nonetheless, they persevered and made the wilderness their home. After several generations in Maine as boat builders and farmers, my ancestors made their way towards Boston in the mid 1800s, likely to work within the booming industries which was deemed a step up from rural life.

As I peel off the layers of our family tree, it reveals to me more about myself and why I am the way I am. Each generation must deal with life based on the circumstances and decisions of those that came before. I believe that by looking back and understanding the past, we are capable of healing hidden shadows not only for ourselves but for our ancestors as well. Once we acknowledge past grief and pain, we can reconcile and release it and move forward in a new light.

I feel a kinship with my Grandfather Wallace now. I have placed his image down next to his daughter, my mother, and will try my best to bring the family legacy forward in the best possible way. Rest in Peace.

Grant Emerson Wallace (1899-1970)

Grant Emerson Wallace (1899-1970)

Claire Wallace Brown (1933-2013)

Claire Wallace Brown (1933-2013)