Monday, April 28, 2014

Playing With History

Genealogical research has a certain unreality to it, especially when you discover minor things- or nothing at all. Perhaps that is why family myth is so powerful. It transcends facts, yet reaffirms them. It also shows, I think, the historic problem of record keeping. We have become so intent on making sure we have “the facts” and only “the facts” that we forget that it wasn’t that long ago facts were easily transformed depending on one’s mood.

For example, in looking at old census records I found that I couldn’t find anything about my mother’s parents prior to 1940. None of them, my mother included are easily found in 1930 or earlier. They were alive, of course; but they are like a ghost in the story to me. I searched and they weren’t there in 1930 or 1920 either. Going back to 1910- only a couple of years after arriving in the United States I came across a possible sighting, but the name is different, shortened and the immigration year is different from what I had found somewhere else. That will send me down another rabbit warren on my next exploration.

Now I have to go back to the immigration lists from Ellis Island and see of there might be another sighting of another name at another date. Crossing those waters in the 1900s did more than change location, it changed identity and gave one a whole new history.

But even my American-born grandparents aren’t found easily in 1900 just before they were married, even though they were both in their mid-20s at that point. The 1890 census was lost to a fire. They are there, at age 4 in 1880, though. Facts are not easily held on to. They are slippery and easily lost in the shuffle of time.

So we build our myths on what we know, have overheard, or just feels right. And thus our story is defined.

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