Billy Coffey
Billy Coffey

Looking back

February 20, 2012  

A friend of mine is drowning in ancestral paperwork. Books and papers are strewn across the floor of his study. Piles of legal pads are stacked at his desk. And a giant world map hangs on one wall with brightly colored stickpins inserted not only into various countries, but specific parts of those countries.

He’s been at this for years, he says. And there’s no end in sight. It’s tough work, hard work, but ultimately very rewarding. He’s slowly gathering the pieces to the puzzle of his past, trying to answer the very riddle that we all at some time ponder:

Where do I come from?

He told me that as a child he found an old family Bible in his grandmother’s house. Inside were the names of her parents and grandparents, and theirs, and theirs, stretching back almost two hundred years. The writing was faded and the pages were yellowed, but he was captivated. Like rolling down the window of a speeding car to take one look back before the next curve.

Sadly, there were just the names. No locations or dates. And as his grandmother was elderly, she could unfortunately offer little help in the way of more information.

That Bible now sits on his bookshelf. A keepsake and a reminder, one that says this is where it started.

He’s Googled and Yahooed. He’s written letters to both our government and foreign ones. He’s corresponded with researchers and genealogists. And he’s uncovered much.

So far as he can tell, he can trace his family back to medieval Italy. Rome, to be exact. His ancestors were quite wealthy. Landowners and artists and poets. And even statesmen. Powerful people. Important people.

He likes this. He’s proud of his ancestors and their position in life. He may be a simple plumber, but he comes from good stock.

Me, I’m a little fuzzy on the history of the Coffey name. My particular branch came to this country in the mid-1600s, mingled with some Cherokee blood, and settled in the Shenandoah Valley. Before that they were mostly Irish and Dutch. Fishermen, from what I can tell, and farmers.

I could dig deeper of course, and someday maybe will. But the truth is that I’m not concerned about the more affluent members of my family tree. I don’t care about landowners and statesmen.

I want to know what cannot be known. I want to know about those fishermen and farmers. The Nobodies.

The ones who carried on my family’s name despite the poverty and the gruel and the taxes paid to oppressive kings. The ones who had to endure sickness rather than be treated for it. The common ones who lived a common existence and dared sail a perilous expanse of water to start over and live better.

I think of them often. And I often wonder if they thought of me.

Did they pause with their hand on the plow or the net to ponder if their name would still be uttered in this world a hundred generations later? Or did their gaze only go so far as the next row of crops or the next wave over the bow?

Was I as fuzzy and mysterious to them as they are to me?

I spend a lot of time convincing myself that only now matters. Only here. This. But as I continue on through my life, I’m finding that a little difficult to accept. Now isn’t the be all and end all. It is the only moment we truly possess, but not the only moment that truly matters. Because I am the result of many moments and many decisions that mattered to people with whom I share a common bond. And those who come after me, my children and their children and theirs, will be the results of my own moments and decisions.

It is, without a doubt, a heavy burden we bear. We, you and I, stand upon the cusp of history. Thousands of years of ancestors have led to us, and perhaps thousands of years more depend upon us.

Not to be powerful and important.

But merely to endure.

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9 Responses to “Looking back”

  1. Marilyn says:

    “I think of them often. And I often wonder if they thought of me.”

    I, too, think more of the Nobodies – their dreams, their successes, their losses, how they grieved, how they toughed it our, whether they spun stories, wrote them down, laugh loud or tended to be introverts…….so much more.

    Did any of them ever imagine my life? In what ways does mine resemble theirs?
    And those who got on a boat and came across an ocean to an unknown place, how did they ever do it?

    Loved this post, Billy!

  2. Beverley Smith says:

    You really should have a go but be warned you may get hooked and not be able to get away. It took me an my sister 25 years to find our great grandmother and it was worth it and our family tree as about 5,000 names on it. What a reunion that will be some day.

  3. Joanne says:

    Got me with that last line again. Powerful reminders – and I agree – more interested in the “plodders” than the powerful.

  4. Amy Sorrells says:

    I’m neck-deep in this stuff right now as the novel I’m working on is based on my father’s side of the family (and my Grandpa, who just passed last week). No one rich. No one famous. Just folks who loved each other well. And there’s a wealth of information in that.

    Thanks for making me cry again, Billy.

  5. Hazel Moon says:

    This is very interesting to some, including my brother-in-law who has traced the Moons back to England and some interesting information about our clan.  On my side, I am German, English, Scotch Irish and Cherokee Indian.  (not enough indian to qualify for the casino rewards.)  My Grandparents were hard working on both side, as well as my dad and mom.  My husband too.  Just about ruined his health working so hard.

  6. We have some people on my father’s side who have spent years researching our ancestry. My mother’s side? I’m a direct descendent of Jenny Wiley, a well-documented story. I find the story of her courage and perseverance overwheming at times.

  7. Jerry says:

    My older sister is in the middle of all of that.  She has been at it for three plus years.  It is interesting and overwhelming to think that now is now and then will soon be tossed in the trash in most cases.  Good Thoughts Billy.

  8. And dare I say, not to merely endure, but to shine God’s light along the way!


  9. […] love this blog post by Billy Coffey.  He says he’s not a genealogist, but in this post, he’s captured the essence of why […]

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