Age, class and politics can be big barriers to people seeing eye to eye. But Susan Burneson moved past those obstacles to form a friendship that began with genealogy.
Susan told her story for our Common Ground project, where we asked people to write about their experiences overcoming differences with others.
Working with the Austin Public Library and The Library Foundation, we collected the submissions and helped writers shape their stories into pieces to read for the radio.
Susan wrote about a friendship that ended up lasting for decades.
Read Susan's story below:
Looking back, I’m as amazed as anyone.
The project was simple enough. Several mornings a week, I helped a longtime Austinite research her ancestors. What’s amazing is that we worked together 21 years.
Not long before we started, I told my husband, “I want to do genealogy for a unique Austin family, and I want to design books.” I didn’t know how. I did have journalism and design experience and had researched my family.
Then I met Coleen. Her stately home was filled with Scottish artwork. Men in kilts, children playing, and soldiers at war. Coleen, in her late 70s, was direct: “I want to find my Grant ancestors who emigrated from Scotland. Can you help me?” I accepted the challenge.
We had our differences – age, social status, politics. Our ancestors fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. She had a PC but didn’t use it. I loved Macs and was excited that genealogy was becoming easier online.
Over time, we found plenty of common ground. It helped that we both loved family stories, music and mystery. And, we loved to laugh.
She greeted me warmly at her front door with “Come in the house!” As I left, she’d say a little wistfully, “Are you gone?” Like something you’d say to dear friends or family.
Well into her late 90s, Coleen remained true to the Grant clan motto, “Stand Fast.” We never stopped searching for her Scottish ancestors. Along the way, we found many others.
Together we created four books about her family. She and I researched and wrote. I edited and designed the books. We made sure copies ended up with family members, friends, and libraries we knew would treasure them.
Our collaboration shouldn’t have been a surprise. Coleen and her husband had founded a singing group with friends in their 60s and older. It lasted 26 years. Members with opposing political views often had lively discussions. Still, they all loved singing together. Their passion and harmony uplifted me.
Last December, Coleen and I visited one last time. For several months, she hadn’t been able to go out for lunch – something she and her husband loved to do. I often joined them.
That December day, we shared a lively conversation about music, books, Christmas and bluebonnets. As she left, she said, “Let’s go out to lunch soon!” I answered, as always, “Yes, let’s do it!”
A week later, Coleen died. Before her funeral, I listened to “The Parting Glass,” a Scottish song for friends who are taking their leave. I thought how gracefully Coleen moved through life. She found common ground with me and so many others. She felt close by - especially when I heard these words:
“So fill to me the parting glass, and drink a health whate’er befall, and gently rise and softly call, ‘Good night and joy be to you all.’”