Thursday 7 July 2022

Seeing the Present, Reliving the Past

There is a tenet of geology called uniformitarianism, also known as the doctrine of uniformity: that the Earth’s geologic processes have acted in the same manner and with essentially the same intensity in the past as they do in the present and that such uniformity is sufficient to account for all geologic change.

To turn it to genealogy, I think that every generation has reacted in the same way as we do today. The love and pride and awe that we feel toward our children and grandchildren must have been the same feelings our ancestors had in their children and grandchildren. The guidance and help that they gave to their families was no different than we strive to give to our families.

As our grandchildren are reaching their adulthood, we are now seeing how their interests, talents and abilities are now showing in their academic achievements and their choices of careers. I think we are gaining quite different ideas of them as people. They are no longer the cuddly infants we were so happy to see take their first breath or the happy faces they had at birthday parties. We are realizing that they have dreams and aspirations as we did and are entering that time of life when they can take charge of their own lives.

We went past the times when our children moved into the world on their own with a sense of pride but also of worry. You never stop being concerned about the welfare of your children. Being one more step removed is a happier place as it is your children that can keep the fearfulness and let you just enjoy the pleasurable moments.

Our family photo albums are filled with pictures of us with our children, occasionally also including grandparents. Rarely, though do we have photos depicting more than three generations.

I know that my grandparents were proud of their children and their grandchildren. I heard those sentiments directly. I can’t help but think my 8th great-grandfather, Nicholas Shepheard – he is as far back as I can get at present – might have had the same feelings about his children. Unfortunately, he did not live to see any of his grandchildren. In fact, neither did any of my 7th or 6th great-grandfathers (or their wives) in my Shepheard line live to see grandchildren.

The first of my Shepheard ancestors to know his grandchildren was Richard Shepheard (1726-1803), a 5th great-grandfather. He and his wife, Mary Collins, had seven children in Cornwood, Devon, England. All of them married, six of them also in Cornwood, and had children. There were 53 grandchildren spread across the seven families, all but seven of them also born in Cornwood. Of those 28 were born before the death of Richard and he would have known them all.

The number of people in a family and, thus, the number of grandchildren or great-grandchildren one might have today is much smaller. People also marry a bit later in life than they did several hundred years ago. Still, we have a few families where several generations co-exist.

My Aunt Ethel, who is still with us, had four children, 11 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, three step-great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Her family may not be through yet giving her descendants while she is alive, either.

Aunt Ethel’s family in 1997 (along with my wife and daughter); not all of Ethel’s family could be there that day.

My oldest sister had four children, all of them married although only three had children of their own. She had nine grandchildren and three step-grandchildren, all of whom were born before she died. And she had three great-grandchildren while she was still with us.

Lynn’s family in 2003 – three generations present

My next oldest sister, Sharon, has two daughters, five grandchildren and now two great-granddaughters. We are not beating the Shepheard record books but four generations alive at the same time is still impressive.

Sharon with one of her daughters, two of her granddaughters and her two great-granddaughters in 2021

My youngest sister, Janice, understandably has a younger family. She is just getting to know who her grandchildren might become but is a long way away from the next generation.

Janice’s family in 2019 with all but one of her grandchildren

It’s a pattern that repeated itself in future generation as most of the Shepheard families stayed in the area until my 2nd great-grandfather. Because of their connection of all the families to the parish, we might surmise that they had a closeness between them as well.

That might not have always been the case with every individual. If you look at your own families you may well find that people grow apart as well as move apart. But there is no reason to think that relationships within individual families or between cousins who lived in the same area were any different that similarly related families today. They may even have been closer than we are, as many probably attended schools together, married in the same church, and worked in similar or related occupations.

We cannot know for sure how our ancestors got along or whether they fully supported each other, but I would suggest that they had at least the same loving relationships as we see in families today. Not that there would not have been disagreements or the odd falling out. They were just as human as we are in that regard.

In most respects I think we can see what the past was like by looking at our families today. Call it the genealogical theory of uniformitarianism.

In our family we are still only at the grandchildren level. But as I started off saying here, we are seeing them rapidly reaching their adulthood and looking to take charge of their own lives. It’s fun to see that and rewarding as well to realize that we must have done something right for our children to succeed and for their children to be on the cusp on doing as well with their endeavors.

Wayne and Linda with their children (except for one who could not be there) and grandchildren