What My Grandmother Couldn't Tell Me: Missing Pieces of the Past

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By Claire Wang

As a child, I spent many afternoons poring over my grandmother’s photos, the majority of which were stored in albums. However, the oldest images—black-and-white or sepia-toned pictures in various stages of decay—lived in a cardboard box that gathered dust in an ignominious place: beneath a large metal desk. My fascination was reserved for these items, especially the scattered assortment of cabinet cards—turn-of-the-century studio portraits that had been affixed to cardboard.

Unknown, Baltimore, ca. 1890's
Unknown, Baltimore, ca. 1890s

When I was young, I brought handfuls of these photos to my grandmother to see if she could identify the people in them. Some of the faces were familiar to her, but it always seemed that the oldest and most fascinating images failed to stir any recognition. I was always disappointed (and somewhat startled) whenever she shook her head and handed these pictures back to me saying, "I don’t know who they are." Sometimes I brought her the same photo from week to week, hoping that repetition would jog her memory. It never worked. She would say things like, "He was probably an Ashley," in reference to her mother-in-law’s family, or "She could have been a neighbor when we lived on such-and-such street."

At the time I wondered how one could own so many photographs of people whom one did not know. My questions about why no one had ever tried to identify these faces when grandparents and other relatives were still alive always generated similar answers: "People didn’t ask about those things back then," or "People didn’t tell stories about family members," or "My parents would have told me to forget about these pictures of dead people and to focus on the present."

Unfortunately, this code of silence among generations past has culminated in some tricky challenges for today’s family historians. Many of us who wrestle with unanswered questions and brick walls would not fare so badly in our research today if our ancestors had been less reticent about sharing stories with younger generations. Just last week, when I helped a customer with searching the U.S. Census, he reflected that his lack of knowledge about his family stemmed from the fact that "people just didn't talk about things back then." The reasons for this silence can be numerous; some people are innately shy, or dislike talking about themselves. Others may feel that they don’t have anything interesting to tell. Then, of course, there are the proverbial family secrets that may inspire a general atmosphere of restraint. And some people, like those in my family, urge their children and grandchildren to focus on the present.

Unidentified, Baltimore, ca. 1920's
Unidentified, Baltimore, ca. 1920s

This last point invokes one criticism of genealogy and those of us who dabble in it, that we are too preoccupied with the past. People argue that we readily neglect our present-day lives to bury ourselves in old records, crumbling photos, and other detritus left behind by our long-dead relatives.

Last month, during the annual RootsTech family history conference, FamilySearch International President and CEO Dennis C. Brimhall reminded the audience that living people have a responsibility to tell our stories, and create our own paper trails. The conference theme, in fact, could be summarized in a single question I now paraphrase here: What will your great-grandchildren wish you had done? Genealogy is not exclusively concerned with the past. Our family histories are ever unfolding, and we shouldn’t forget the fact that someday our descendants might come looking for us.

Baseball Game at Herring Run, Easter 1940
Baseball Game at Herring Run, Easter 1940

I know what I wish my great-grandparents had done in their lifetime. I wish they had shared their stories, and their parents’ stories. I wish that my grandparents had grown up in an atmosphere that welcomed questions and encouraged curiosity about family history. I wish I knew more about my ancestors’ likes and dislikes. One set of great-grandparents lived in Canton during the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904—yet I have no knowledge of what they saw and how frightened they must have felt. In several cases, I have little more information than names and dates; and even those are missing for most of my ancestors. Anyone who works on family histories knows that there is more to genealogy than dates on tombstones, and other vital records. The stories that happen in between those dates make our ancestors come alive for us. When we do research of any kind, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. One of the pitfalls of genealogy is our tendency to focus only on the past and on the lives of those who are long dead. But, as Dennis C. Brimhall reminds us, we shouldn’t neglect the stories of those living in the present—including ourselves.

The Pratt Library has several books that might be helpful for those who are interested in writing about themselves and their families, such as The Legacy Guide: Capturing the Facts, Memories, and Meaning of Your Life, Living to Tell the Tale, Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory, and To Our Children’s Children, which contains several chapters of sample questions and prompts that address topics such as habits, education, food, holidays and celebrations. For additional prompts, see the genealogy resources provided by the John Parker Library at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Did your ancestors leave any stories behind? Did they share any information that became a critical detail of your family history? Are you planning to share your own stories?

All photos Copyright Claire Wang.

Claire, I love this post! I especially enjoyed seeing the photos. This makes me want to delve a little deeper into our family photos and history.
Posted by: Rita at 5/29/2013 10:50 a.m.

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