Sunday, April 10, 2016

What If...?

I'd like to share a little something from the heart this week, inspired by what I posted last week about the great-grandmother I never knew, and my belief that she was not a bad person, but instead subjected to hardships that shaped her as a person.

When we look at our ancestors, we can only guess so much based on their actions. In the episode of Finding Your Roots with Mia Farrow, she was appalled to learn that her grandfather, Joseph Farrow, committed her grandmother, Lucy Savage, to an asylum after the birth of their only child. For a while, she was angry about it, but when she learned of Joseph's heroism in World War I, she wondered if he was really such a bad guy.

She'll never know, just like I will never know about my great-grandmother Mildred, which is why I cannot and will not judge her.

I know very well there are two sides or more to every story, because I am a story. When I was only 3-years-old, my parents divorced. Once it was finalized, I did not see or hear from my mother again until I was 19.

We gathered for a Bartlett family reunion in Massachusetts in 2008 and that was when, at long last, I would see her again... 30 years after the last time I saw her.

Did I judge her? Did I wonder why she left? Of course, so I asked questions and I received three different answers from three different people.

Whose answer is most accurate? My mother's, because she was the one involved in the situation? What about the opinions of the outside observers who perhaps saw something she did not see? Or were their observations merely inaccurate perceptions of the overall situation?

I think that's the key word when dealing with family stories: perception.

Where one person perceived my great-grandmother's behavior and choices as wrong, another might perceive it as the only thing she could possibly do in her circumstances. We were not in her shoes, so we were not the ones sick after childbirth or giving birth to frail children whose lives hung in the balance. We were not the ones with five mouths to feed and a husband who left. We were not the ones reported to reported to the state for neglect, our children removed from our care to go into foster care.

It was with help from her second husband (my great-grandfather) that my great-grandmother was able to get on her feet, but it is not an overnight process, as anyone who has gone through hard times understands.

Things often look one way from a certain angle, but it's when you take the time to see the other side that you realize it's not the shape you expected.

It was such a different world only 50 years ago, let alone 100 years ago, and though we look at genealogy analytically and judge family stories harshly at times, we need to remember that we were not there. And those connected to the stories can only tell their side.

I think we also need to remember not to hold on to judgements or regrets that things did not turn out differently. That holds us back in the past, and not in a good way.

Genealogy and family history is going to have good and bad, amazing triumphs and awful tragedies. I believe the key is to understand that we aren't just dealing with names and numbers. We're talking about human beings with hopes and dreams, and the capacity to suffer and hurt.

As the ones still living, I think we should embrace the opportunity to learn from the past, rather than dwell on it, and heal the present.

Copyright (c) 2016 Wendy L. Callahan

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