A Personal History Lesson

A Personal History LessonBy Wendy O. Dixon, Editor

One TV show I got hooked on from the start and looked forward to watching every week during its brief season earlier this year was “Who Do You Think You Are?,” an NBC television show about celebrities and their quest to discover the secrets of their ancestors.

In the show, actress Brooke Shields discovers she is a first cousin (many generations removed) to King Louis XIV of France. Actor Matthew Broderick finds out his grandfather was a war hero during World War I and visits the final resting place of his great-great-grandfather, who fought in the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith visits the village in Africa where his ancestors were taken to be sold as slaves in Virginia.

After watching a few episodes, my sister and I became curious about our own family history. It was especially helpful for me to understand my grandmother, Rebecca. I remember her as a proud Southern woman who enjoyed the simple things — mostly shelling peas on the front porch surrounded by her grandchildren. She was frugal, strict and mysterious about her past. I never thought about why she was the way she was until I discovered that her own childhood had been more tragic than happy.

My sister, the family investigator, took on the task of researching our grandmother’s family tree by tracking census records from anscestry.com, the same website used on the show “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Between the census records and interviews with our aunt and mom, we found out Rebecca was born the 13th child to a mother who died five months later. Her alcoholic father, not at all interested in raising another child, sent her to live with a foster family, who loved and wanted to adopt her. But when the family wanted to move out of the state, Rebecca’s father took her away from the only home she’d known and sent her to live with an older sister, who was married and had children of her own. There, she was treated like a worker rather than a child who needed love and guidance.

Forced to quit school after the fifth grade, Rebecca worked at home until she got married, only to move from one abusive household to another. She married a cold-hearted man who would eventually abandon her and their four children. Too proud to accept welfare or charity, Rebecca worked in a factory for minimum wage to support her children, who turned out to be decent and loving people, thanks to her.

I’m no descendant of royalty or aristocracy. But tracing my family’s past has been an inward journey I’ve embraced, because learning about Rebecca helped me feel more connected to her.

In this issue, Dewey Destin Jr., great-great-grandson of Destin’s founder, Leonard Destin, shares the tale of his adventurous and enterprising ancestor’s lucky escape from death, his vision of Destin and his legacy for “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”

On another note, this will be my last column as editor of Emerald Coast Magazine. During the time I have worked with this publication, I’ve met some wonderful people and made dear friends. I enthusiastically introduce you to the new editor, Zandra Wolfgram, who brings her experience as a contributing writer for the magazine along with great vigor for her new role.  

Congratulations, Zandra!