Frustrations, history, and the things we do for family


One thing they never tell you about family history is how frustrating it can be.

Even with all the work websites like FamilySearch and Ancestry.com have been doing, piecing together the various branches of your family tree can feel like putting together a puzzle that’s missing half the pieces. While some people might see those circumstances as a challenge, there are also plenty of people out there who think of it more as a really subtle low-key form of torture.

Worse, you don’t even know if all of the pieces in the box are actually from that puzzle, because apparently there were about 65 different William Smiths all living about an hour apart in the same small region of England in the 1800s and only one of them is related to you. Using the same name over and over again was big among families in the U.K. back in the old days, and either they had nicknames or never spoke to each other because otherwise conversations probably got really confusing.

And maybe the file that will help you find the correct William is at the Family History Library in Salt Lake somewhere, or in a parish registry somewhere you could call, but most of us don’t have the kind of training to even begin to know how to get to them. Unless that’s your thing, the idea wading through old, possibly illegible paperwork trying to find one little fact that might not even be there can be absolutely terrifying.

On top of that, odds are that there’s someone out there with very different views about how your puzzle should be put together. There will undoubtedly be other people on different branches of your family tree who have passionate views over who a particular ancestor was married to or where they lived, whether or not they have any facts to back them up. Sometimes they’ll even have facts, but they somehow completely contradict the facts you’ve found.

The truth, though, is that we do things for family that we might not be willing to do under normal circumstances. We listen to Grandma tell the same story about her childhood, even though we’ve heard it so often we could recite it back to her. We pick our siblings up from the airport if they ask us, even if it’s a long drive and traffic is terrible that time of day. We wear the truly unattractive sweater they got us to the family party, because no matter how awful it is we love them and don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Our ancestors are our family, too, even though they’re not around to make terrible-tasting gravy for the family Christmas party. And, though we can no longer wear their sweaters or give them rides to places, we can do our very best to connect them to their parents, spouses, children, siblings and cousins. We can clean up their records, and correct misinformation. We can read about them a little to get a better picture of who they were.

Just a few minutes a day is plenty – the length of a phone call to a great-aunt who maybe can’t hear so good anymore. Because yes, it would be great if you could solve the puzzle, but all your departed family members really want to know is that you’re trying. 

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