Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Family Stories -- Don't Just Tell Them, Get Them Right

By Janet Brigham
We heard the stories from our grandparents and parents so long ago that we can’t remember when we first heard the stories or who first told us:
· One of our ancestors was a miner in the California gold rush.
· Hordes of crickets attacked great-grandpa’s crops, but he beat them off with brooms and shovels.
· Grandma once went underwater in a diving bell.
The family stories become part of our family narrative, part of how we perceive ourselves and how far back we connect to family. And what family we connect to.
Passing along family stories is actually serious business. Online services anxious to collect our stories, such as Family, seem less interested in the veracity of the account than in the fact that we record it. One problem with that approach, however, is that often we don’t know the story until we do some research.
Case in point: A young mother named Nellie lost her husband in a hunting accident. Her descendants heard about the incident over the years but did not know that she and her husband already had buried an infant daughter in 1904. They also were not aware of the extent to which Nellie’s family stepped in to help care for her and her children.
On the headstone, Nellie and her husband are in the center, and the buried infant is at the left. Who’s that at the right? That would be Nellie’s devoted younger brother George, who, we learn from censuses and other documents, moved in with Nellie after her husband died and stayed with her for decades, supporting the family and stepping up as surrogate father to his nieces and nephews. 
Some of Nellie’s descendants remember their Uncle George, who died in 1958, as a kind man. Few realize the depth of his personal sacrifice for the sake of his sister and her offspring. 
Just passing along the family story about Nellie’s husband’s accident didn’t tell the whole story. Only by looking up records about Uncle George, including finding his shared headstone on Find and his vital and census records, do we begin to see the enormity of his contribution to his sister and her family.
The family accounts add considerably  — particularly accounts from those who knew George. One of Nellie’s descendants recalls that after George died in 1958, no one knew if he had any money, or where it might be. They knew of no bank accounts, but they knew he had worked many years. They did find his money eventually, rolled up inside his socks in his bedroom closet. They hadn’t known that he didn’t trust banks.
Such fully told family stories can become part of a rich family narrative that helps children develop resilience, self-esteem, and a belief in their ability to cope with life events, as they perceive themselves as belonging to an intergenerational family that has faced adversity together and survived it together.

Feiler, Bruce. (2013, March 15). The family stories that bind us. New York Times.
Duke, Marshall P. (2009, March 23). The stories that bind us: What are the twenty questions?


Monday, February 16, 2015

Fantasy Genealogy

Some years back, a relative of mine was anxiously wooing a young woman from Asia. Her family believed one’s ancestry was supremely important, so he asked me to put together a genealogy for him.
I hadn’t yet done family history research in a systematic, organized way, although I knew from being around my genealogist husband that research ought to be done correctly. Everything should be documented, nothing should be taken at face value, and unverified information on the Internet was suspect.
My relative was so anxious to please his prospective in-laws that I quickly compiled not only what had been verified (details compiled by recent ancestors including several genealogically conservative great-aunts) as well as anything I could find on the Web that appeared to make any kind of sense.
It was a good thing the prospective in-laws were easily impressed with that genealogy, because, in retrospect, I am not. When I reached the point of including ancient ancestors with single names (think Beowulf?) and the occasional Roman centurion, even I knew I was treading on shaky ground. Richard (genealogist husband) answered my questions about how to build a database but was not party to the odd inclusions in said database.
In time, the relative won over the girl’s parents, and the long-distance lovebirds got married and had a child. I need to confiscate all copies of that original genealogy, so that she never tries to verify the shakier information.
It included kings, queens, conquerors, courtesans, and a few cowboys. It left outthe stories — not yet discovered by Richard and me, for the most part — that make our family history compelling, astounding, and at times wrenching.
As hasty and imaginary as that pedigree was, it did serve to get me started in genealogy. It also taught me how easy it is to get it all wrong.
Yes , wrong — particularly those people I refer to as the Beowulf People, those fantastical, single-name folk who lurk at the ends of the rainbows of many online genealogies.
All it takes to get it wrong is to become too invested in something other than making sense of the facts at hand.
For example: If it is important to you that you descend from war heroes, documented research might impinge on that fantasy. Although many of us have ancestral ties to military service, far fewer of us have decorated or documented heroes as ancestors.
One of the early realizations we make as genealogy researchers is that we can’t take credit (or blame) for what our ancestors did. You may have ancestors who fought for America’s liberty in several wars, but you also might have an ancestor who committed homicide, or an ancestor who fought on what you consider “the wrong side.”
I can’t take credit for the actions of my ancestral Minuteman, nor can I take blame for an unfortunate ancestor who killed himself, or the one who apparently inadvertently knocked his wife down the stairs of their homestead house. Stuff happens, good and bad, and while some ancestors rallied to a noble cause, others were challenged just to keep their fences upright.
Occasionally we encounter people who are determined to prove that they have very specific, important ancestors. That type of search rarely works out to their satisfaction. They may want to be related to Abraham Lincoln, but instead they are related to farmers who never became politicians.
Having read biographies of various famous people, I actually prefer not being related to most of them. For example, my Danish immigrant ancestors worked hard, sold their home and property to come to America, and helped settle the West. I’m here partly because they took a chance on building a new life a long way from Denmark, or England, or Germany. It may be possible that their adventurousness is somewhere in my genes or my psyche, but maybe not.
    When I was quickly assembling that initial fictitious genealogy and first came across the generations of nobility, royalty, and Beowulf People, I felt a mild thrill wondering if their legendary fairy dust coursed through my veins. That lasted perhaps 10 seconds. I’ve since learned that the real thrill is in a realization based on long-neglected evidence that opens a new understanding of someone long-deceased.
Wikipedia actually has a category for the topic Fantasy genealogy, with this bubble-blasting description:
Fantasy genealogies are mythical, fictional or fabricated pedigrees, usually to enhance the status of the descendant. . . .
Many claimed ancestries are considered by modern scholars to be fabrications, especially the claims of kings and emperors who trace their ancestry to gods or the founders of their civilization.

To Wikipedia’s credit, it also has links to real fantasy genealogy, such as the family lines of characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and other characters from Tolkien’s Middle Earth (see
(I confess to reading Tolkien’s trilogy seven times in my teens and twenties, and even to designing but never completing a needlepoint map of Middle Earth. But I might never finish all seven Harry Potter books. Wikipedia links to this Potter-themed genealogy:
mediaviewer/File:Harry_Potter_Family_Tree.png )

True fantasy genealogies are harmless as long as you don’t jump down the rabbit hole, so to speak. (Just so you know: if you search for the words Alice in Wonderland pedigree, you may find numerous canine pedigrees.) The real danger of fantasy genealogy is that you might miss the actual ancestors, who are far more engaging than fiction or fantasy.

Copyright PastFinder newsletter, Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group, January 2015. You can link to this, but please do not repost or reprint without permission.