Working as a practicing anthropologist meant following threads in people’s lives and their community. I worked for about a decade in one community that a historian friend of mine friend described as a “three-generation community.” At least three generations of many of the families lived there. After looking at the census records, I found that the generational depth was sometimes much more profound – I found families in the 1880 census whose descendants I knew.
One bitter-sweet result of this was finding the household records of a close friend’s great-grandmother. Her husband walked out in 1884, went west, and never returned. He left a family of around eight to fend for itself. One day I was able to lay the 1880 census page in front of him to see an 1880 snapshot of what his family had looked like before it had been sundered. It was a poignant moment watching him touch the page with the record of ancestors. The sundering happened almost a hundred years before. But it had echoed down the years. Family members recalled the stories of how life had been hard for gran, how they had wondered where he had gone and why. One recurrent theme was, “Is there another family out there?” Sometimes there is no reprieve from the past.
Working in that community wasn’t just about families. It also was about the persistent links and institutions they had developed there: churches, religious societies, social clubs, businesses, and generations spanning friendships.
After a while, you begin to hear the stories that don’t go past family or community bounds. These are about generational disputes, feuds, family successes, and humor.
Stories about the local undertaker who, eager to win a city election, “voted the graveyard.” This got discovered when the relative of a man the undertaker buried noticed the ballot for his uncle – dead twenty years. His wiles failed, but he acquired a sort of local fame for doing what is only rumored about elsewhere.
Being embedded in a community for so long means that your life becomes entwined with the community – you do not simply walk away from it at the day’s end or the end of a job. My ties to that community have endured for forty years and only now fading as most friends and associates have died.
I’d ask that you consider how different the meaning of the word community is today. Today we use the term loosely for any aggregate to which we feel linked. In contrast, the community I worked in had deep historical depth and recognizable geography. Members were residents or connected deeply with the community, families, and social institutions.
There was a sort of solidity that many places today lack or are rapidly losing.
I’d get asked by students and other people how you build community, as though it was some formula you could apply. My answer was only with time.