An Afternoon with Dad

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.

A few years ago, my father and I spent a Saturday going through boxes and envelopes containing our family history. His mother, my Mema Eula, was a history buff and amateur genealogist and kept a lot of  family things to pass down to my father. After Mema passed away, her cedar chest with all of this collected history was taken to a storage warehouse.  At the time, we really didn’t have an understanding or appreciation of the contents inside.

The first item that drew our eyes when we opened the cedar chest was an old Whitman’s chocolate box.  As I wiped off the layers of dust from the lid, I couldn’t help but think of the saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” and laughed a little at the irony. I lifted the lid and wondered what family treasure it might hold, if any. I prayed it wouldn’t contain fifty-year-old chocolate covered fruit as the lid described!

My fingers rested on the piece of paper that laid on top. Gingerly unfolding the stained and tattered paper, I wondered how it had survived for years in this chocolate box under such poor conditions. I worried it would fall apart in my hands. Thankfully it didn’t, and to our excitement we discovered the paper was a marriage license for my great-great-grandparents, John Goode and Henri Ellen Roberson, dated September 1880!  They both were twenty-two years of age and from Garner Township in Union County, Arkansas.

Anticipation building at what we might find next, we opened a smaller box with the name of a Little Rock jewelry store, long since gone, written across the lid. Inside we found a lovely cameo pendant, a locket with the photo of a woman and baby from around the turn of the century, a gold wedding band, a broken beaded necklace, and several other jewelry remnants. All prized possessions for someone at one time, no doubt.

The rest of the cedar chest contained letters, other boxes of keepsakes, yearbooks, and photos. Lots of photos. People we knew and people we didn’t.  The mystery lady from the locket turned up several more times in larger, more stunning photos. Her side profile revealed a long straight nose and perfectly arched brow. Her beautiful dark hair was swept back in a loose, wavy bun. Fashionable ladies at the turn of the century wore such styles, and this helped us narrow down who she might be in the family tree.

One other woman appeared in a Civil War era photo. Having traced my family history quite extensively, I knew that my father’s side came to Arkansas from Yorkville after the Civil War. Wearing a dark dress with a voluminous skirt, the woman in the photograph holds a Holy Bible in one hand. Her face is pleasant, if expressionless, which is so often the case with old photos like these. We thought about who she could possibly be. Which great grandmother is she? Where does she fit in the family tree? The photo jacket named J. R. Shorb, Yorkville, South Carolina. Once we went home, we did some research on Schorb, a prominent photographer in Yorkville in the mid-1850s until his death. Given the dates of his work and the age of the woman in the photo, we determined that the woman was most likely either my third great grandmother, Cynthia Louise Hall Garrison, or my second great grandmother, Mary Jane Simril Garrison. Mary Jane moved with her husband, Major Brown Garrison, to Bradley County, Arkansas around 1870.

As we went through the remaining photos and other items in the chest, I learned many things that I didn’t know about my grandparents. Almost every item brought up a memory for Dad and a story I hadn’t heard before. We read letters my grandfather wrote during World War II while he was stationed in the South Pacific. I learned that my grandfather, an engineer by trade, loved to draw floor plans, which is something I have always loved to do myself. I learned about how my grandmother, a teacher, managed to raise two wonderful children on her own after my grandfather died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm. I learned of my father’s childhood in the oil boom town of El Dorado, Arkansas. Of him laying highway asphalt one summer, in the oppressive Arkansas heat and humidity, to earn money for college. I learned things that amused me, things that surprised me. Things that made me proud. Things that made my grandparents and great grandparents more than just names on the family tree. Most importantly, I spent a fun and meaningful afternoon with my father.

Beth Garison Wylie, MPA, is a genealogy blogger at When she is not researching family history, she’s busy juggling the crazy but rewarding life of a healthcare administrator, wife, and mother of two littles. She is currently a member of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society Board of Directors and the Secretary for the NextGen Genealogy Network’s Leadership Team.