Thursday, August 6, 2009

Unearthing Skeletons

I've been working on my genealogy for about 10 years. Inevitably, when I tell people that, I get the "how far back have you gotten" question. I generally grimace and respond that I have people in my tree dating back to the 1700s. But, what most people who don't do real genealogy don't realize is that it is so much more than just stretching your tree back as far as you can go.

For me, my genealogy is a big puzzle. And the big picture of the puzzle is not about dates and dashes. It's about people, my family. Their stories. It's about knowing who people were and what their lives were they lived, not how long. The dates are an important detail. But, the real fun is in finding out information that fills in that dash in between.

What I have discovered from this research is that there are a lot of secrets and many separations. Too many parts of the family just stopped talking to each other for seemingly stupid reasons, usually related to money. But, the items I want to discuss have to do with secrets that people just didn't talk about.

Growing up, my maternal grandmother was always tight-lipped about her childhood. We knew that she had grown up in a children's home, had 3 brothers that she hadn't seen since leaving the home, and that she was born in Ohio. That was it. As an adult, I bought her one of those books for grandmas to write memories of their lives to their grandchildren...she never touched it after opening the present. She wouldn't even tell me how she and my grandfather had met. It was like she just wanted to shut off everything, ignore the past. When she was at the end of her life, I tried to put all the pieces together on paper. I sent all of this information to the genealogy society in the county she grew up in (after having found the name of the children's home). I hoped I would get a response before she passed away so that I could say to her, "I know and I understand." But, the answer didn't come until 2 weeks after her death. It was a newspaper extract detailing the death of her father at the hands of her mother. It was sad and it was tragic. I haven't found anything since, as I need to travel the hour or so to the county to find things myself. I don't know if her mother went to jail or not. No clue. But, it did give me a glimpse into why she was so closed off from us emotionally. It's helped us heal some of the bad feelings we had toward her during her life. It's helped us understand.

On the day of my grandmother's funeral, I drove my great-aunt (my grandfather's sister) to and from the cemetery. During that time, we spoke a bit about my grandparents. I was amazed at the information she was giving me. I had been close to my grandfather. To this day, his is still the hardest death I've had to deal with and I find that I miss him even more than I did a decade ago when he passed away. Yet, I knew from my mom that he hadn't always been the man that I knew him to be. I knew that he had been a difficult and strict father, that he was reluctant to show love to his daughters and that this had all changed when he became a grandfather. I also knew, from his own lips, that he had had a difficult childhood himself and had run from home as a teenager. What I didn't know was that this man, who I had never known to touch alcohol, drank a LOT when he was younger and that he had gotten in trouble more than once because of it.

Last month, I did the fairly ordinary genealogical task of ordering the documentation of his separation from the Marine Corps. It was something he never talked about - his service experience. But, we all knew that he was a Marine and we wanted that recognized on his grave. Imagine my surprise when that document finally came in and I found out that he had been given a bad conduct discharge. My mom's first suspicion is that he drank and got into fights, as he was prone to do in his younger days. We may never know why he had such a discharge. This new information doesn't tarnish my grandfather's memory for me. Instead, it gives me a fuller picture of his life and a greater understanding of who he was and why he was the man that I knew. And that, in essence, is why I do this know the person beyond the dates.

I also have a great-uncle, brother to the above mentioned grandmother, who I knew had passed away while imprisoned. I haven't been able to find much on him, so I don't know why he was in prison. Records are expensive when you add them up, so I have to order them sparingly. Until a few weeks ago, this imprisonment is all I really knew about him save a few old photos of him in a military uniform. Then I got an email - someone had a purple heart with his name on it. I requested his military record to verify if it is his or not. If it is, it provides a deeper look at who he was. And, perhaps, I'll put some money aside to order some other records on him to put more pieces together. Again, it will help in getting to know the man rather than the dates and places of birth and death.

I guess the lesson I've learned from this work is that skeletons will inevitably be unearthed. I'm a spiritual person and tend to believe that my deceased family is watching over me. I often talk to them when I'm working, asking them to help me find information so that I can get to know them better. That may sound crazy, but it's my personal belief system. I also wonder, though, what they think about the information that I've found. I hope that they understand that I'm working to understand them better and that I'm not being judgemental about how they lived their lives. I guess I won't know until I join them someday. But, I do have a feeling that they are happy to not be forgotten by those they have left behind, even if that means that their "secrets" are made known.

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