There are so many aspects to consider when completing family history research, compilation, and story-telling, only one of which is the factual side of nitty gritty details of sheer existence. To be certain, I absolutely adore the factual side–finding nearly un-contestable truths in the pages of census notes, court records, or war documents. These treasured findings let history speak for itself in what is pretty much an unfiltered lens–this person was born; he lived here with this person or that person; he carried on in this manner with his blue eyes, brown hair, short stature; he died. These facts are the critical basis upon which all other research is founded, and yet it leaves us wanting so much more–it leaves us wanting the human connection, whether funny, sympathetic, tragic, or inspiring. Stories of romance, grudges, family dynamics, and merriment are so much more intriguing–yet so much more subjective, too. After all, as the saying goes, every story has at least two sides to it, and often, even in interviewing an original party, we are probably only getting one take on things. This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be retelling these stories!
My grandmother, for instance, has been a treasure trove of anecdotes all throughout our lives, and even moreso with me now that she knows I’ve taken up the family history search. With every name or concrete piece of evidence I am able to bring forward to her, it seems she has a leg up on me already–she has a personal story about the person who existed, in the flesh. She has funny stories to tell about practical jokes and picnics and happy times. Then she has the scoop on everyone’s scandals of the day as well–people with questionable love interests or a knack for creating family drama, for being rude, or spiteful, or dishonest. I adore these stories and they often leave me in stitches or with my eyes wide open–usually, as many stories go, at the expense of one of the anecdote’s primary “characters”. And then, I must stop to remember that each of these characters was actually a real person, and may remain transcribed in alternate notebooks as somebody else’s beloved mother, aunt, grandmother, or cousin.
So, in transcribing these types of memories and stories to eventually share with others, the question must be asked: to what extent must a historian audit the truth (or a version of it) in order to preserve a sense of dignity (or fairness) for those who have passed and can no longer defend themselves? The historian of me is quick to answer “to no extent!”. After all, should we not let these tales speak for themselves, taking them with a grain of salt, and keeping in mind that with every historical story that is told, not only do we learn about the lives of the “characters” in the story, but also about the life of the narrator him/herself?
All this keeps me up at night wondering, though. In my family tree of (so far) several hundred people, I’ve inevitably developed quirky favorites; I often feel like I have special relationships with each of these strangers that I never knew. Some of their dates, or stories, or timelines draw me in, and I gravitate to wanting to know more about them. I think about them during the day. From time to time, I’ve found that I’ve asked myself, “I wonder what so-and-so would do?” or some other equally empathetic question. And yet, the troubling part is, the law of probability would seem to state that, in a family tree as large as mine, hiding somewhere within it must be some less-than-favorable characters, too. So, who are they, the wife beaters, the mentally ill, the alcoholics, the liars, the cheats? What if the family man I pictured was actually such a horror to live with that his sixteen children instead rejoiced when he finally died at an early age? Of course, leave it to someone with such a hyperactive imagination as mine to conjure up hypotheticals like this–but still, it makes me wonder what the “true” stories were about each of these individuals I’ve so carefully recorded in my notebooks. Were they really the darling mother I envisioned them to be, or some kind of sociopathic abuser instead?
And so, when my grandma is able to tell me stories of people long passed–people that she actually knew and met and visited and dined with throughout the course of her lifetime–even unglamorous, unflattering, scandalous stories–the historian in me secretly squirrels them away, as is, in all their cringe-worthy, jaw-dropping glory, until I can resolve within myself the question of to what extent the dead need to be protected, or left alone, in peace, from here on in.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!