My father’s family was always something of a mystery to me. I knew a great deal about my mother’s family but my father’s? Not so much. His parents both died long before I was born; in fact, they died before my oldest sibling was born. I’d heard stories about them, but mostly from my mother. I don’t really remember my father talking about his parents. I knew that his mother died when my father was only 17; that the last trip she made out of the family home was for my dad’s high school graduation just a few weeks before her death. Family lore was that my grandfather was a cold man who ran a funeral home. I always had a sense that my father really loved his mother, although that wasn’t based on anything I’d heard, just a feeling. I heard from my mother that my grandfather always wanted my father to be a doctor and that, when my father returned home with his PhD. and said to his father, “well, Dad, I’m a doctor now,” his father’s response was a cold, “yes, but not the right kind.” That story actually comforted me: my father was kind of emotionally distant and hearing that about his father – coupled with the knowledge that Dad had grown up in a funeral home -- helped me to understand my dad a little bit.
Several years ago, I joined Ancestry.com and started doing some research into my Gibson ancestry. Within 15 minutes, I was able to connect all the way back to the early 1700s when my Gibson ancestors first came to America. I learned that my great-great-great-great grandfather George was a Major who fought with Washington at Valley Forge; I learned that one of his children was abducted by the Indians as a young child and was only found as a young adult and identified by a birthmark. I learned that my ancestors had settled a little town called Gibson Station, Virginia, in the Cumberland Gap area where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky converge (it’s still there, although not much more than a signpost). And then I lost interest - not sure why.
Recently, I planned a little getaway and booked into a lovely B&B out in the western part of Virginia – the beautiful part of the state rarely seen by those of us who live in the DC metropolitan area. I’ve been feeling particularly close to my father in recent months and, as a result of that, I thought, well, gee, I’m going to be so much closer than I am now to the Cumberland Gap where my father grew up, perhaps I should go the extra distance and check out my dad’s family.
I promised myself I wouldn’t set up any expectations. This was going to be about the journey, not the destination. Whatever I found out was sure to be more than I already knew. I contacted the public library in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where I knew my father had grown up; the librarian said she would be happy to help me. I did as much research as I could ahead of time; since my time was limited, I wanted to find out as much as I could before I got there, so I tried to find out where my grandparents are buried. Because my siblings and I never knew them, we hadn’t established grandparental nicknames for them, so I began calling them Grandpa and Grandma.
The morning I left my home, I wrote in my journal, “Daddy, I’m a-comin’”! I felt like I was heading towards him. After an 8-hour drive to Kentucky, I arrived bright and early the next morning at the Middlesboro Public Library and introduced myself to the librarian. I spent about four hours poring through books about citizens of Bell County KY, Lee County VA and Claiborne County TN; I found obituaries for both my grandparents; I learned that Grandpa was actually married three times. I learned that Grandma’s father had been married three times. [I get the sense that, when a wife died back then, the husband waited the obligatory mourning period and then remarried and had more children.] I learned that Grandpa served in the Spanish-American War. I learned that he and his brother were more than just undertakers – they were real entrepreneurs: Gibson Brothers was a clothing store, a jewelers and a music store, in addition to being a funeral home.
Grandma remains a mystery; even her obituary says very little: “Services for Mrs. D.Z. Gibson will be held at the family home in Middlesboro.” No first name, no “formerly Miss Mellie Rice,” nothing to indicate that she was anything other than Grandpa’s wife. I was unable to find her grave, although I did find her father’s; he’s buried alongside his third wife and their daughter, Laura. Aha! I thought, I’ll try to track down Laura’s descendants and I’ll learn about Grandma through them. Unfortunately, Laura, who died in 1982, had no children so I’m unable to find any descendants. I’ve not given up: the Rice family in that area of Kentucky is huge so I hope to get more information about her.
I was lucky enough to find out where Grandpa is buried, so I drove 5 miles to Harrogate, Tennessee, to visit his grave. I took a photograph and started to walk away. And then I asked myself, “wait a minute, after coming all this way, is that all you’re going to do”? So I sat down and had a bit of a conversation with Grandpa: “You know, I heard all sorts of somewhat unflattering things about you and I don’t know if any of them are true. I believe that you probably didn’t really know your son and we have that in common because I didn’t really know him when he was alive either. But I now know that he was a wonderful man and I think we both missed out on knowing him when he was alive.” As I was walking away, I thought about the fact that he’s buried next to Ida, his third wife, to whom he was married a mere 5 years before his sudden death. She was the only paternal grandmother I ever knew. I loved Ida; she was warm and nurturing. The fact that he married her and that she clearly loved him enough to want to be buried next to him says to me that perhaps he wasn’t quite as cold and unemotional as I’d been led to believe.
When I arrived home, I found a letter that my father had written to his uncle three months before I was born, asking his uncle to provide some genealogical information. Maybe I’m continuing the work my father started. Genealogical research is addictive: the more I find out, the more I want to know. There’s a lot more information to uncover, but I know that I already feel more connected to my Gibson side as a result of this journey.
Jillian Gibson is the owner of Gibson Girl handbags and a writer in Washington, DC.