Looking Over Your Shoulder At The Past
By Jeanette Pontacq
I have always loved comic books. I had stacks and stacks of Archie (and Veronica) issues when I was a kid in San Francisco. Not to mention myriad other titles available then. Who were YOUR favorites? My favorites of all times turned out to be French, published beginning in the 1960s under the title of Asterix et
Obelix. They were hard-cover and I stood in line in Paris, with everyone else, to get them just like the kids now camp out for the first appearance of a Harry Potter book! And I was 21 at the time!!!!
I recently realized that my beloved collection of these books was no longer complete. I obviously had loaned one or two to friends over the years and never got them back. I thus hit eBay, French edition, to see what was available. There were several sellers from all around France. The one that had what I wanted was someone who turned out to live in Tarbes, in the southwest, near the Pyrenees. He also turned out to be curious about my name, Pontacq. The town of Pontacq in France is only about ten miles from where he works! He asked me what my fraternal grandmother's name was and what village she was born in. Here's the rub: I didn't know!
Like many Americans, I had ignored the details of my family's past. I lived in the present and had reinvented myself several times already. Obviously, I knew we were French, and had been in France many times over the years. But I had never, never thought to even ask older relatives about their past, how they got to this country, and what their lives were like. I was what I call a born-again American. So when I could not answer the question from the man in Tarbes about my grandmother, I got curious. Very curious.
One week later, I had started a genealogy project and realized how little I knew about the family history. And how little other living relatives knew as well. It was obvious that we had almost all missed the boat by not interviewing the older relatives before they each died. Fortunately, there was one left with memories to share. From that, I got clues and became like Sherlock Holmes on a mission: learn about the past! I joined www.ancestry.com and was able to access the wonderful data base of the Mormons... which includes everyone, not just Mormons. I was able to sift through detailed US census records back to 1870 and birth, marriage and death records for California. Not to mention, as with the Ellis Island site, the immigration lists and ships' logs.
I then turned to France for help in finding out about the family before they arrived here as immigrants. So far, I have been able to go back as far as 1800 or so, with the help of excellent record keeping in churches, civic centers and provincial archives. I expect to go back at least another 150! It has been a fabulous journey into the past, and it has given me clues as to my own hard-wiring. Not to mention stories and legends, some racy, some not for public consumption, but always adding more to my understanding of WHO all those now-dead people were. Each is slowly changing from "just a name with a birth and death date" to someone with a unique personality and history.
So why am I telling you this story? After all, I usually write about politics or West Marin issues. I am telling this story because it IS a West Marin issue. For many out here, it is not just that West Marin itself is "an island in time, apart," but that we ourselves have too often broken the historical imperative to know where and who we came from. Accidentally. Or deliberately. Whatever. Why does it matter? Because knowing where we came from can give us a better understanding of ourselves and a greater empathy for life's happenings. For example, I did sometimes wonder why, after a lifetime of high heels and nail polish, I took to a rural lifestyle like a duck to water, and ached to grow things. I found I loved soil! Where did that all come from?, I asked myself. Well, it probably comes from the drive for landless peasants to own land and work it, as exhibited by my great grand-mother, who was born in the Pyrenees and died in the Pyrenees, but came to California four times to run a French Laundry in San Francisco. She made those trips in the late 1800s. She made enough money here to buy back the family farmlands near Buzy, France. Take a moment to think what those four trips were like in those days!! Plus she raised a family! I take my hat off to the lady.
So here is my advice, folks: ask your older relatives about their lives before they die. Once they go, the stories go with them. I have always thought that it would be a good idea to have an "interview project" in West Marin to retain the stories from our older residents before they leave us. Anyone interested? [email protected]
Coastal Post Home Page