Saturday, April 14, 2007

Skeletons Among My Roots

I love to write about the good, hard working ancestors in my tree. Or the ancestor that died a tragic death that was covered for weeks in the newspaper. I record every scrap of information I can find about the quiet ancestors that left behind so very little of their story for me to find.

What I don't know how to handle are the skeletons that I come across. It's quite unpleasant to find unpleasant ancestors. How much do I really want to know and how much of what I find do I want to pass on. Does it / should it matter how close to me an ancestor was? I certainly don't mean to imply that my tree is filled with unpleasantness but it does show up from time to time.

I was very excited the first time I found a reference to an ancestor in a history book. My excitement deflated when I learned that what he was most remembered for was bringing an underbed of weeds into his new community. Not too terrible but not what I was hoping for either. His son was referenced in the same text for having been cashiered from the army.

I was absolutely shocked to learn that another ancestor was a slave owner. How could this be when I came from a family that fought against slavery? Prior to this discovery I never even realized that there had been slavery in New York. I guess this isn't something to be left out of a history so long ago past. Even after 200 years this is a sensitive issue and needs to be written so as not to offend but a history of the times needs to be addressed also.

These ancestors are many generations back in my tree and I guess that does make them easier to write about. Where I really run into trouble is in dealing with the much closer kin that have screwed up. Should I really record all of the bad things I have found? Will it benefit future generations to know that so and so was arrested for such and such? Do my grandkids really need to know that nobody seemed to have anything good to say about my grandfather and great-grandfather? What would it hurt to simply remember them as war heroes and leave the unpleasantness buried?

My kids have fond memories of my father. Should I really record all that I know and feel about him and maybe warp those memories? Would it actually benefit them in some way? If I don't record these things they will stay buried with him.

So how do you handle the skeletons in your tree?


Anonymous said...

My mother's father was not the most pleasant man to his family. he was critical of his wife and her lack of culinary style and housekeeping. He was a bit of a tyrant with his children.

I adored him. As he grew older and mellowed he learned to relax and play with his grandchildren. We walked in the woods after he had started the oil wells and he would point out plants and talk about the narrow gauge railroad that ran along the dirt road we walked on.

All of his life experiences made him the man that he was, not just what I knew personally.

Anonymous said...


You read & commented on my International Women's Day story, so you know that, at one level, I'm for candor with skeletons.

But I approach it on a graduated level.

I guess my response is a cross between honesty and the Hippocratic Oath ("First, do no harm").

Where a skeleton involves knowing something about someone who is alive, or is a living descendent of the person, I tread more carefully. In the case of the story I told, I balance my story (I was there the first time she fell, and I know I'm affected by that) with the stories of other family members.

There are other parts of that story that I wrote but kept from posting, because I'm treading too near someone else's territory. I've blurred a thing or two in pieces that I've written for the public, in order to not to overstep.

A rule of thumb (a writer's rule) is "there is no risk in writing; there is risk in publishing." I guess that without consciously following that guide, I did, in fact follow it.

Far more care goes into concealing details of events when the people directly related were young when those events took place.

But there's also a kind of freedom in being a few generations removed. The great-grandmother whose letter is featured in my 1918 flu epidemic post wrote a ton of letters, lots of them with nagging "why haven't you" statements. My Mom finds the letters hard reading--they were to her mother and from her grandmother. But I'm further removed, and they don't personally affect me in the same way. Now, I wouldn't call my G-Gma's harangues a skeleton, exactly, but I wonder if being more removed gives me an impartiality that those who are closer do not have.

The bad stuff? It is what it is. This is part of who so-and-so was. Such and such an event actually did happen.

I have a photograph that is disturbing. A painted cross and people dressed in white; you cannot see their faces. My mom and I looked at that when we were going through photos, to see which ones I should scan for a family reunion-- should I scan it? Well, we decided, it IS history. It did happen. I scanned, but do not display it. (And raising the matter of that photo with those who might personally know more about what transpired, is a bit trickier. Haven't done that. Yet.)

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I have written most of the things I eluded to but they are in a separate file.

Janice said...

In researching our family trees, it is important not to impress our current day beliefs upon the past. There were many American colonists who had slaves. There were many Americans who fought for the Confederacy and were pro-slavery. That fact did not make them evil people. We need to accept that past and move on. We need to learn more about the factors in history that created those circumstances, so we can better understand our ancestors.


Christina | said...

My grandfather did not get along with his father for very good reason. I want to learn all I can about my great grandfather, but I won't mention it because many of my grandfather's siblings are still around and I'm not sure they'd appreciate me airing the family's dirty laundry, so to speak. I imagine it is something I wouldn't feel as bad about publishing when I am a grandmother, but for now, those skeletons stay in the closet.

Anonymous said...

Those that I fear/know will hurt someone older than myself - I do not reveal/publish - otherwise I tell the story

Martha said...

Skeletons provide a bit of interest and balance sometimes. My father's roots go baack to the Mayflower in at least two different ways. His grandma's line went back to William Brewster, his grandfather's to John Billington. William was the model citizen, John was hanged for murder. Guess it all evens out somehow.