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My Great Grandmother’s History Book

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Robyn

When my siblings and I were growing, up my father gave each of us a copy of his mother’s family’s history book. This fascinating book, published in 1901, long before the days of, traces the history of the Killam family from the time they arrived in Yarmouth, Massachusetts in 1637. Starting as a family of sea captains in Salem, Massachusetts they steadily moved west in search of greater opportunities, crossing the plains in covered wagons until they reached San Francisco in the 1850s, around the time of the Gold Rush. We don’t know if they found any gold, but as this 1880s photo of my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Corning Killam, shows, we must be descended from strong pioneer women.

My husband and I looked through the history book for interesting family names when naming our children. Zerubabel and Ebenezar, however, would not be good choices for modern Americans, so we gave up the idea. My children enjoyed going through the history book for projects writing about family trees. My daughter entitled her project “Pilgrims and Pirates”.

One of my grandmother’s best memories was when my sister took her to the town of Killam in Yorkshire, England where her family came from so many years ago. They visited the town church, where my sister played the organ.

Americans, for the most part, don’t care much about ancestors when they have been here for a long time; many of us believe in reinventing ourselves with every new generation. That was certainly true for my mother, whose family also arrived in San Francisco around the time of the 1850s gold rush. Here is the wedding photo of her parents, Grace and Walter Fong, from the 1920s.

The traditional Chinese thing to do to honor ancestors is to light incense in front of their picture or grave and bow deeply (kowtow) three times. On birthdays and death days, the ancestor would be honored with an actual feast and given time to symbolically eat the food first before living people began the meal. My husband’s more traditional Chinese family follows these customs in the Philippines. Here is a photo sent by my sister-in-law honoring her parents and grandmother with a feast. The photos on the table are, left to right, Ah Lai Leung, my father- in-law Basilio King, and my mother-in-law Monica Elisa King.

My mother would have nothing to do with such traditions and so neither do we. Once my sister’s in-laws, who are originally from Korea, said they wanted to pay homage to my late father when they visited my mother’s house by bowing in front of the urn with his ashes. In response, my mother hid the urn before they arrived! That’s the beauty of being an American I suppose. We are a young country, and everyone gets to choose what history to bring into their daily lives.

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