Like our society at large, families tend to emphasize their brushes with greatness — defined mainly in terms of fame. I’ve a familial connection, for example, to President Ulysses S. Grant, and my grandfather grew up in proximity to Robert Frost. By such relations do we feel a part of history and connect, by extension, to the broader society that shares a knowledge of the famous names.
In the regular flow of emails that travel among members of my own family, my mother’s cousin, Jerry Mattison, sent the following, and thinking it profound, I asked for permission to reprint it. (N.B., “Uncle Burt” is my grandfather.)
As for President Grant, our connection to him is extremely distant at best. I think I figured out one time that he would be about a fifth cousin to our great grandmother. Robert Frost was a literary giant but only a distant neighbor to our Potter family.
I have learned much over the past 30+ years researching our ancestors, and what I have found is that they were all good salt of the earth people. Not Presidents or Poets, but just plain honest hard working people who did their best to provide for their families. I prefer to call them Ordinary Heroes, you know, the kind of people that just make things happen. Sure we have outstanding ancestors. We can claim at least one that fought in every war to make our country safe and sound. Just the other day I found that John Fay Potter, our great grandfather, fought in the Civil War, enlisting in the Union forces in New York State. I have sent for his entire Civil War record and pension file.
My father tells me that Uncle Burt was the first man drafted from Bennington County in World War II. He obviously saw a lot of action in Europe, rose to the rank of Warrant Officer, but came home to Bennington humble without fanfare and excelled in his chosen profession. Our family is full of men and women just like Uncle Burt. They are the people that rolled up their sleeves and built this nation. They played hard and worked hard to build a better life for us all.
I thank my lucky stars everyday that I was fortunate enough to grow up in Bennington, Vermont, in our family. My Uncles and Aunts are my heroes. Uncle Earl and Aunt Bessie, Uncle Burt and Aunt Mary, my parents and grandparents and yes even Uncle Richard.