Saturday, December 12, 2009

No generic ancestors---

My experience with family history extends over four and a half decades now. (As I may have pointed out previously, I was very, very young when I began!) And I have just recently begun to recognize something about my mental approach to this burgeoning collection of ancestors and relatives.

Perhaps I began thinking about it because I once heard that one of the most romantic actors in our cinematic past had a rather hefty case of halitosis (a nice way of saying bad breath). Imagine! And so you begin looking at the attractive faces on the screen and thinking, I wonder if he/she wears cologne. If so, what kind? I wonder whether they chew with their mouths closed. I wonder if they snore. I wonder if they leave their socks on the bedroom/bathroom/family room floor. I wonder if they are ill tempered. I wonder if they get along with their family members. I wonder what they think about when there’s nothing else going on. Do they like cats or dogs or neither?

Just a little side note here—My husband always maintains that if you like a celebrity, you should make no attempt to get to know him/her better since you stand a pretty good chance of being disappointed. Because he worked for many years in the music field, he has stories to back up his position. Happily, there are some exceptions to that rule. But in general, we should probably be hanging our admiration hats on hooks (and heads) much closer to home.

Many of us spend uncounted hours trying to find out more about our ancestors. And yet for how many of us have all those names become a flat combination of letters and numbers on our family history forms? Are they more like the detail-deprived silhouettes used in many of the social Web sites? In all our studies and searchings, have we forgotten that we are dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings?

This was probably brought home to me when I finally saw a picture of one of my third-great-grandfather’s children. An older descendant had sent me a picture of this woman’s father several years ago, so I was already familiar with the overly large ears, the piercing eyes hooded by a slanted eyebrow ridge, the square chin and strong jawline. But, startlingly, here was a feminine version with the same general features.

We can continue to ask questions—What did her voice sound like? Did she have a wry sense of humor that might have turned up the corners of her somber-looking mouth just seconds after the photographer’s shutter clicked? What kind of a wife and mother was she? Sadly, it is unlikely that we will be able to obtain the answers to those questions here unless someone kept some kind of a surviving record. (By the by, when was the last time you sat down and wrote a detailed description of one of your family members???)

But simply admitting that there are answers generates more questions. Complex interpersonal relationships are not a 21st-century development. And since it is often difficult to discern accurately the underlying currents motivating living people, it is imperative that we withhold judgment when we see events transpire in the lives of those who cannot even be observed. All conclusions are tentative at best.

So when a husband deserts his wife, we must allow for the possibility that he might have been self-centered or she might have been a scold. We see this problem being played out during the current scandal over the sports personality who was unfaithful to his beautiful wife. Commentators marvel over and over again that his straying is totally incomprehensible given the beautiful wife. Call me jaded, but according to all I have observed there is no direct correlation between compatibility and either fame or beauty!

Similarly, the son or daughter who got left out of the will or received a minimal monetary allotment may have fully merited that final reprimand because of blatant irresponsibility...or worse. On the other side of that equation, there are very few (read “no”) perfect parents! One of my relatives observed that she had determined that she was going to be a great housekeeper because her own mother’s disorganization had driven her father crazy. (And I’ve often wondered if those cycles continue down through the generations.)

My husband says that he remembers that in his grandparents’ world, the man ruled the roost. No doubt, many times that relationship wound up being less than sensitive according to current standards. His own great-grandmother had eight children—all born 16 months apart or less (mostly less)—before she died during the last pregnancy. However, as poor as her husband was, he buried his deceased wife in her new coat, her infant cradled in her arms.

Seven years later, the widower married a woman who shouldered the responsibility for the surviving motherless children and eventually bore eight children of her own. What were those seven intervening years like for him? How did he sustain his family? How did his second wife fit in? Was she happy in this setting? Did they have the same “blending” challenges faced by modern step-families? Or did the demands of survival not allow time for that?

Obviously, I think it is imperative that we exercise judgment cautiously, for both the living and the dead. Our progenitors were real people, composed of faults and flaws, character and quality, and unlimited combinations of each. My husband once asked me what I would do if, after having devoted a huge portion of my life to researching my infamous 3ggfather, I met him and discovered that he really wasn’t a very likable person. I’ll have to admit that the thought gave me pause; however, it has not diminished my determination to find out more about him—warts and all.

Yes, there will probably be some surprises, maybe even some disappointments, when we finally participate in that great reunion. But just as we learn in mortality to love very flawed individuals, I am confident that the same process will play out there—except that we may then see much more clearly all the elements which contributed to the realities we encounter.

In the meantime, perhaps we should remind ourselves constantly that


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