Monday, February 17, 2020

Family history pitfalls (part 2)

This is the second part of an extract from my short book Family History Pitfalls, which is available as a free pdf download to those who subscribe to my newsletter The Scribbler.


How do you tell members of your family that, based on your research, what they’ve told you is wrong, without upsetting or insulting them?
If it’s simply a case that, for instance, the date the family has always celebrated Grandma’s birthday is a day or two out from what is recorded in the official records, revealing that fact to your family may not cause too much of a problem. It will likely produce surprise, perhaps some discussion about how the discrepancy arose, and debate about whether the family are going to change the day of the birthday celebration or keep on celebrating on the same day as they’ve always done.  
Some members of the family may resent any suggestion that what they have remembered is inaccurate. People don’t like being told that their memories are not perfect. Be as tactful as possible when telling someone that you’ve discovered that their memories are not completely correct. If all that’s involved is the accuracy of a date or the correct spelling of a name, showing them the records may be enough to satisfy them, or at least to settle their minds.  
Disproving cherished family myths and legends can be a greater cause of consternation or resentment, even if the old stories and the newly revealed truth are both harmless enough. These are the stories that family members tell one other to explain who they are. They are part of our family heritage, the ties that help hold the family together. Sometimes they may even serve as the rationale for keeping certain family members at a distance. They are the stories that come out at Christmas gatherings, during wedding speeches and at funerals.  
If you’ve grown up repeatedly hearing the story of how your Aunt Alice met your Uncle Fred during the war, when she nursed him to health after a bullet hit him in the leg, you may want to think twice before telling everyone that, actually, Fred was on home leave and fell off a ladder, and Alice wasn’t a nurse but a hospital cleaner. Even if Alice and Fred are long dead, the story itself has its place in the life of the family, and something about the family dynamics will change if the story changes. 
 If you’re lucky, your newly discovered information will become the new family legend and enrich the family. If you’re less fortunate, you’ll be excluded from conversations at family gatherings for being an iconoclast. 
Jumbled memories and false assumptions are only two of the ways in which facts get distorted. Sometimes the stories that get passed down in the family have been deliberately constructed to explain or hide awkward facts.  
When I began researching my mother’s side of the family, I vaguely remembered my grandmother telling me that her grandfather, Alfred Pearson Bentley, had left his family in Manchester and gone off to America. He’d planned to send for his family once he was settled, but they’d received the devastating news that he had died in Boston. His widow and her family in England were left in poverty. 
What a cousin and I both discovered, when the US records became available on-line, was that, far from dying in America, Alfred had been alive and well and had entered into a bigamous marriage with an English girl soon after his arrival. Possibly he and the girl already knew each other in England, since she had lived not far from him and she’d arrived in the USA about the same time as he did. They had a son born in Boston and Alfred did quite well for himself there. After a few years he and his second wife returned to England and took up residence in the next county from his ‘widowed’ first wife. 
It’s impossible to know whether Alfred really intended to send for his family once he settled, or if he had quite deliberately planned his escape to a place where he was unknown, in order to marry another woman. We’ll also probably never know whether his first wife knew what was happening, and played along with the story of his demise, or whether she was cruelly deceived by a false report of Alfred’s death coming from Boston. Whatever the case, the story passed on to his children was not the whole truth.  
News may be upsetting to people simply because it is unexpected, or worse than expected. I can imagine that my own grandmother, had she lived long enough to hear it, would have been quite disturbed by the true story of her grandfather’s bigamous marriage. A cousin with an interest in family history told me that when he revealed that his great grandmother had died, demented and alone, in the workhouse, his mother wept for days. She hadn’t seen her grandmother since childhood and hadn’t previously known what had happened to her. 
Most of us start researching our family history without thinking about what we’re going to do with what we discover. We might plan to create a pictorial family tree to hang on the wall or have in mind to produce a written account that we can share around the family.  
Others begin their research out of a more personal need to know their own background, particularly if they have very little knowledge about their family and where it came from. Some may be motivated by a sense that their family has kept secrets from them that they want to uncover.  
Whatever the case, it’s likely that somewhere along the research trail you’ll find information that not everyone in your family is going to want to hear. It’s worth thinking in advance about what information you’re going to share, and who you are going to share it with.  
It’s also worth thinking about how you are going to handle information that affects you, personally or emotionally. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, you may come across details that surprise you or perhaps even distress you. Are you prepared? 
Needless to say, I’m giving this advice based on hindsight. It’s not something I thought about before I launched into researching my own family tree. Fortunately, I haven’t discovered anything startling or new about my immediate family, but others have, as you can discover by reading posts on family history forums.  

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