Tracking Your Past

Family Bibles aside, our ancestors’ books may convey their dreams and life directions in ways both subtle and obvious. Unlike a list of ancestor names at the beginning of a Bible, these clues may come in the form of underlined passages, dog-eared pages or even smudges and other signs of wear.

Doris Green

Some signs are easy to follow, like notes on a crocheted afghan pattern or an annotated recipe for poppyseed cake taken to a graduation gathering.

Others invite storytelling. My mother’s heavily bookmarked preventive health tomes pointed to home remedies tried and their thumbs up/down results. My uncle’s collection of pristine Lloyd C. Douglas novels pointed not to his own religious bent, but more likely to his mother’s Christian focus. Were they perhaps Mother’s Day gifts returned to my uncle after her death? Genre itself tells a tale.

My father-in-law’s immense collection of American West and journalism history contained a few surprising volumes that invited speculation. A psychology book, popular into the early 1980s, stood apart from the rest. He signed the flyleaf and noted the date his last wife had gifted it to him. Was she sending him a message, suggesting solutions to mental or physical health issues?

After a friend’s death a few years ago, I carried home a box of books from his library. For whatever reason, each spoke to me — from Wisconsin tales both fictional and true, to women’s biographies, to a few spiritual texts. A slightly foxed edition of the “Tao Te Ching” is deeply creased at chapter 8:

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.

Reading it, I knew a friend anew. Books can translate lives for us after their owners are gone.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Newly available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” is co-authored Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.