This is a photo of my great-grandfather, William Jewell, when he was a child actor in Michigan.
I’ve been working a bit on my family history. By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors. You can discover their parents’ names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then? What were the rituals of their church? What were the big events in their communities? If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.
Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center. There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.
Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother. As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records. Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.
The goals that seem just beyond one’s grasp that we can’t help chasing, these are what animate a life and give it meaning. When a person dies we mourn not for what they did but for what they could have done and never had the time. The world may see your resume, but only those who know you best know what lies behind it, what you wish to accomplish and haven’t, not yet.
When you examine the census records in your search for William Jewell, you will find his occupation listed as “salesman” but his business card said, “Wm. F. Jewell, Fine Arts. Theatrical Work a Specialty.”
His sister Ada, just two years older, had become a Vaudeville star with her husband Dick Lynch. Bill, as he was known, made a poor businessman when he tried to run a family candy store in Detroit. He did better selling ads for the Detroit Journal. In his free time he would pick up extra cash and drinks by doing recitations in the local bar. Even the members of his family, who bore the brunt of his legendary temper, admired the acting talent he showed when he recited the old stories.
The story of his life lies in what drove him, what fueled his ambition, what he was never able to achieve.
“He needed only the opportunities that I gave you children,” said his wife, the woman who has been dubbed in family lore “Saint Clara.” “To me he was truly a successful man.”
And what of her dreams? Clara was “a practical, pragmatic, wonderful lady,” who wanted a stable home and family and who had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love with a man with big dreams and big disappointments. His dreams and her dreams crashed into each other. And that is the story of a life. It is not what we manage to accomplish that makes us who we are. The real work of a life is bridge building. It is the story of the bridges we try to build to cross the distance between our dreams and the reality of our lives.