Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

Family historians wonder how their readers will feel about discoveries made about their ancestors. What will readers think about a great-uncle’s drinking or a great-grandfather who ran a speakeasy? Maybe they will wonder why a great-grandmother chose to emigrate at age 15. Perhaps they’ll feel compassion for a great-aunt who may (or may not) have committed suicide and condemn (or not) her second husband for murdering her. Genealogists can seldom predict how a reader will feel upon learning that an ancestor fought on the side of the South (or maybe the North) in the Civil War. Does it matter if an ancestor was a slave or a slave owner, a Holocaust victim or a member of the Gestapo?

In your heart you know it doesn’t matter what others think. You want to convey the truth as far as it’s discernible from documents and oral histories, weeding out the hearsay and rumors. You want to entice readers to be curious about their ancestors by teasing out the truth, not by spreading gossipy tales to new generations.

But, of course, what readers think does make a difference. Some histories and memoirs can be written only after a key individual has died. How many family histories are completed only after Grandma or Grandpa can no longer wag a finger at a thoughtful conclusion or even laugh at a word choice?

If an ancestor disappeared, acted outside of conventional behavior, or died under weird circumstances, we want to unravel the mystery. Where did that ancestor go? How did they die? We research whatever records we can find and report only the most reliable results. We leave out the unverified tale about hiding the hootch in a county fair booth or skiing down a Norwegian mountain at speed when inebriated.

For better or worse, our ancestors’ stories matter. When I meet a person who professes disinterest in genealogy, the disinterest often stems from a view of genealogy as nothing more than leaves on a painted family tree, a boring recitation of the biblical Book of Numbers. Yet family stories build empathy for ancestors facing unbelievable challenges in worlds very different from our own. We want our readers to recognize and accept these victims, scoundrels and heroes.

Besides, you never know. Echoes of “me, too” and “aha!” flow from generation to generation. Truth about the past may inform our decisions today.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Newly available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” is co-authored Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.