Monday, August 17, 2015

Pieces of the past

My husband and I have been watching episodes of "Who Do You Think You Are?," a show in which people* study their genealogy. In the process, they find out about how their ancestors lived through historical events, as well as unearthing family stories (sometimes scandals). A few of them have also found living relatives.

My husband traced my family tree and his own, and so the discovery process we see on the show is familiar: the sometimes startling or amusing hints you find in old records (like the ancestor who started out in one census as 10 years her husband's senior, but downplayed her age in each succeeding census until they were finally recorded as being only a year apart). We didn't have cameras following us around, nor the budget to fly all over the world visiting archives, nor did we get personal one-on-one visits with historians and genealogists. But even without the resources that the people on the show have, you can still find plenty of information from local records repositories, family papers, and the internet.**

The information is never complete, though. You can see that a family lost several young children, or that a widow and her daughter married the neighbor and his son and all moved in together. You can see that a young man took off to a new territory, that one person sued another, that a person fought in a war. But you don't know the whys and wherefores; you don't know what they thought or how they felt. On the TV show, the people who are researching their families piece together the facts they've found and reach conclusions: "They must have really loved each other." "He really believed in something." "This shows his courage." Sometimes, watching, I've reached different conclusions from the same set of facts. You don't know if people married for love, money, self-preservation, or other reasons. You don't know if a soldier fought because he was idealistic about a cause or because he thought the millitary could give him more freedom than the indentured servitude he left behind. You don't know if a separated couple was happier apart than together.

For writers, for storytellers, these hints and bare-bones outlines of stories suggest all sorts of possibilities. They can serve as jumping-off points, because a single fact can be the seed for a thousand different tales.

*The people on the show happen to be celebrities, but that isn't really the draw. The real stars of the show are their previously unknown ancestors, whose stories come alive during the research. I have a feeling the celebrity angle was the initial hook to get the show made, but it would work just as well with random people pulled off the street.

**One thing that's striking about the show is just how many local historical societies, archives, and small libraries there are around the world, how many people devote themselves to these specialized fragments of history. Many of them seem to toil in tiny buildings with little funding. But they are keeping these stories alive.

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