Thursday, March 29, 2007

Grandma Always Said . . .

What to do when your documented proof doesn't match up with the beloved family legend?
Oh boy, is this a sensitive topic.
Here's my stand on my ancestors. They are what they are and who they are, regardless. No matter if they were horse thieves or Kings (and sometimes both) I wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't be me, without them. So, I don't really give a flying fig if my ancestors were Irish, Jewish, Russian, or what have you. It doesn't matter to me. That's not to say that I don't have my favorites when it comes to my branches on my tree, because I do. Usually, though, my favorite branches are the ones that have the most information because they paint a clearer picturer of the people long gone. Not because of a specific race, religion, creed or occupation.
Even though I don't care what my ancestors origins were, doesn't mean that I don't require more than a certain color of eyes or the absence of a Christmas tree to prove my ancestors nationality or religion. If it can't be proven, then I don't put it in the family history. I might add a footnote saying something to the point of "it is rumored that Tom Jones was an Irish sea captain, but no proof has been found to this date." That way, the family legend still makes its way in, but it's not misrepresented as something that is documented or proven.
Here's the reason: For years my paternal grandmother told me that she was four years old when her mother died. Much ado had been made about the fact that she was orphaned so young. Her mother had a tragic death and an even more tragic life. My grandmother's father lived another fifty years, for all the good it did her, and she was bounced around with relatives, ultimately living with her father a few short years before trekking out on her own at the age of fifteen to work at the old Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. So, if my Grandma was born in 1901 and her mom died when she was four . . . using my rudimentary math skills, I figured Great-Grandma died around 1905. As is typical in genealogy, I broadened my search to a year before and a year after the date in question. Great-grandma would have died before the mandatory death record year of 1910, between 1904 and 1906, and so I began searching for an obituary and a place of burial for those years. I could find neither. I even tried hunting down the old Mulanphy hospital records where she died, to no avail. I tried the Catholic records, no such luck. So for years I shelved this as one of my brick walls, because it never occurred to me to check for any other years, because I just couldn't believe that Grandma would have gotten it wrong. How could she? She was alive for the event!
Then, as luck would have it, somebody outside of our immediate family--but still a distant cousin--found an obituary record for my great-grandma. He'd been searching for other things and wouldn't you know it, since he didn't have that "family legend" to hinder his way of thinking, he found her obituary . . . for 1909. A full four years after she was supposed to have died. Making my grandmother a whopping 8 years old, instead of 4. Now, HOW does that happen? You'd think my grandma ought to know when her own mother died. Right? How could she get 4 and 8 mixed up? Some in the family thought the obituary was for a different woman. Not our ancestor. But luckily, my great-grandma had a very unusual name and her two daughters had even more unusual first names. The obituary was for the right woman. There was no question.
Now, I adored my grandma, but you have to wonder if she was fudging on the years of her story for a specific reason? Was she trying to get more attention or more sympathy out of saying she was "only four" when her mother died? Or maybe her mother had been very ill and she was taken from her when she was only four because her mother could no longer care for her. To a young child, I could see this getting confused in her mind, and that's most likely what happened. However, I also have to realize that my grandma wasn't beyond exaggerating, either. This is the same woman who told me she was "full blooded French" only to stammer and admit that she was 3/4ths French when I asked her how her grandmother had gotten the English name of Eliza Jane Yates? It seemed she had three French grandparents, and one very English Catholic. She is also the one who told me of another legend in our family about how her very English grandma had died during childbirth and was buried under a cedar tree with the baby on the "old home place." Several years into research, I discovered that wasn't exactly right, either. Her grandmother was actually buried in a Catholic cemetery, and that the people buried on the old home place were my grandmother's French great-grandparents and two great, great-uncles. That went over like a lead balloon, considering my uncle had erected a homemade tombstone on the old home place with the wrong names, based on this family "legend."
So, my point is, our ancestors are not beyond getting things wrong, mixed-up, confused, or even exaggerating just a bit. So, for the most part, I believe that our ancestors believed what they told us, but that doesn't mean they got it right. After all, if I hadn't discovered the above errors, I would have passed on these "legends" to my kids, none the wiser. So, when you're handed a "family legend" on your tree, you must treat it as just that. A legend. Until you prove it with documents. It's not always a popular stand to take, because people hold those family legends to heart and don't want to let go of them. I have a friend who started tracing her family tree just so she could find out the Indian name of her great-grandmother who was supposedly a "full-blooded Cherokee princess." She'd been told this her entire life. Several years later, all she'd found for six generations in any direction were Germans, one Irish line and more Germans. She never did find the Native American, and she expressed that she'd wished she'd never started the search, because then she'd still have the fantasy that she was descended from a Cherokee princess. And she's certainly not alone in this. I hear these types of stories all the time. So, like I said, those who hold onto these legends don't always take too well to having them squashed. Be honest, tell them what you've found, when asked. But don't defend yourself too much and let the subject go, if possible. It's not worth an all out family war. If any of their children decide to do the research, they'll find the same thing you did, anyway.
My grandma died before I found the obituary for her mother. I would have loved to have heard her answer for the discrepancy. These legends meant a lot to me, too. They were the stories I grew up on. (And many other legends I've been told, actually have turned out to be true!) So, I've documented the legend along with the truth. I've written in my family history scrapbook, the story of how Grandma told me her mom had died in 1905, and how and what the truth ended up being. Because, there was a part of me that just couldn't let my Grandma's story be lost to history.
Rett MacPherson


Anonymous said...

I always find it fascinating to consider why a relative would "fudge" on things. My mother always told us she was born on Friday the 13th and that's why misery followed her around all her life. {She lost her own mother at a young age, was taken out of school to keep house for her large family, married in the Depression, was poor, lost two children ... }. Later my sister and I did a little math and realized that her birthdate was a Thursday. So she was wrong .. she just wanted to make a point!
Camille Minichino

Anonymous said...

and a word about why I'm anonymous! I tried for about 30 minutes to post with my Google account and ended up in an endless loop, where they said I already had an account and couldn't open a new one, but my "already" account wasn't being accepted. This could be a new hobby: helping handicapped posters!

Rett MacPherson said...

I am about as electronically challenged as one can be. Every time I blog here I have to try at least three times before it works. :-) So, you're not alone.
Sometimes I think our relatives are just passing on wrong information that they believe is the truth. Other times, like my grandma, I think they're truly "fudging." For whatever reason.
One family legend I was told time and again was that my 3rd great-grandfather had froze to death in a blizzard while walking to church. I was thrilled when I found a newspaper article about him freezing to death. (Well, okay, not thrilled that he froze, but thrilled that the legend wasn't a lie!) Yes, us genealogists get thrilled over the most morbid things, eh?
At any rate, it's part of what makes it all so fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I love genealogy and you do have to be prepared for any surprises that come up. I was in contact with a distant cousin whose ancestor was my ggggrandfather's brother. I told him I had heard about a "scandal" about his ancestor's wife having a baby while he was fighting for the confederancy in the war, but that the generations that existed today refused to talk about it. Well, he did some checking and come to find out that my ggggrandfather was probably the father of the child and he laughed and said, boy that sure screws up my research and now we are closed kin than he thought.
And I learned that my ancestor was a "loving guy"