I’ll never forget the day that determined my passion. I remember it vividly. It was in May 1985, where a small church in rural Kansas celebrated a centennial (100 years in existence). That church happened to be the Womer Church in Womer, Kansas.
My maiden name is Womer and yes, that church was founded by my ancestors so many decades ago.
It was built as a replica of the little clapboard church in Wahlhausen, Germany, where the Womers had immigrated from.
And on this particular day, I watched with the rest of the town as my father – the only remaining Womer descendent – dug away the cornerstone from the century-old building. There, in the space beneath, was a tin box buried 100 years ago.
I was mesmerized as the entire crowd leaned in, all of us barely breathing while he forced open that tin box and unwrapped a muslin cloth. Inside was a bible, a poem, a few coins, a cross, and a hymnal. I could smell the moldy dust as the bible’s pages disintegrated against his fingers. A handwritten note on heavy paper survived, and he read the words of its dedication aloud to us.
That time capsule triggered memories of my grandparents and all the aunts and uncles who lived on that farm. Oh, the stories they would tell. Old family legends of dust storms, wagon trains, failed crops, stolen cattle, buggy rides to town, delivering babies at the old house, chasing chickens to wring their necks for dinner… Those stories would get passed on, and then told again and again.
That day those stories were written on my heart and I knew it was up to me to share. My children needed to hear them. I was 38 years old at the time, and on my way to creating my own history.
In that same year, my mother wrote a book honoring the life of my grandfather, Emmet Womer.
It was a tribute to him since he died in 1968. She detailed not only his life but the lives of his parents and siblings, and their trials and tribulations living on the harsh plains of Kansas.
When I was 22, my father had given me a slim booklet written by his aunt Lesley, outlining the complete ancestry of the Womer clan going back as far as 1815. It was told to her by Margaret Mitchell Womer, the matriarch of the Kansas Womer family.
Written in 1935, it was filled with stories and a chronological list of each family member. He held it lovingly in two hands as he presented it. It was entitled That You May Know.
The book’s original list of our family had stopped with my father’s name, but he pointed to the last page where he’d handwritten my name and date of birth along with my sisters’.
I now regret not being more reverent. But back then I was busy being a new wife and mother finding my way in the sixties, when every young woman was expected to be an elementary school teacher or a nurse and I wanted to be neither.
I just assumed every Kansas family had a booklet around made with blue mimeograph ink on slick paper about their ancestors traveling by covered wagon to reach a promised homestead of 180 acres.
Now I know why I love these legends so much. My father and mother and their families took great care to share the family legacy. It was so important to them to pass on the strength and the fortitude of our ancestors to the next generation.
Now I know it falls to me. Those family histories passed down, that day in 1985, that slim blue booklet, that tribute my mom wrote. They all funnel our stories down to me. Me – the next in line to tell the family legend. Who will do it if I don’t?
What’s your family legacy?
Join me and share your legends.