The Sides We Don’t See (or Commit a Small Act of Family History this Season)

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The holiday season provides excellent opportunities to commit small acts of family history. With just a little effort, we can learn new things about people in our family trees.

People we know, even family members with whom we’ve lived, have sides we may not see or consider. These are facets of their personalities or experience which enrich our sense of who they are or were, if we can discover them through some act of family history.

Consider, for example, my first grade teacher, Miss Keller. (The name is changed to protect her, in case she’s more innocent than we thought at the time.) Miss Keller was mean. She yelled at us. She punished the whole class for the minor offenses of one or two students, which is as quick a way to pique a child’s sense of injustice as any. She also taught us to count in German.

When she was out of earshot, we speculated about her genealogy: We thought she must be a certain German tyrant’s niece, and it wasn’t because of the counting in German. It was simply our childish habit to attach that terrible name to anyone we thought oppressed us in any small way. (Note to self: Find out whether modern first graders know anything about last century’s genocidal tyrants.) We pondered Miss Keller’s descendants as well, in the sense of wondering if any man would ever love the hateful creature enough to want to create any new genealogy with her. Those weren’t our exact words, of course; we were first graders – and, yes, we may have been the mean ones in this picture.

High Peaks Elementary Boulder Colorado

High Peaks Elementary in Boulder, Colorado, called Aurora 7 Elementary when I was in first grade

She came back from a long weekend in the middle of the school year and announced that we were henceforth to call her Mrs. Dean (also not her real name) instead of Miss Keller. Confronted with such evidence, we told each other that she might not be as rotten a human specimen as we had thought, and we watched for her to become friendlier. I don’t recall that it happened.

Now consider Mrs. Dean from a different perspective, that of people who later called her “Mom,” assuming there were such. I still have trouble believing that.

She might have quit teaching before her own children arrived. Even if her children and grandchildren grew up knowing she had taught school, they might not know what grade she taught, how she felt about her students, why she wanted to become a teacher, or how a classroom was different in 1971. These possible people who lived on a side of her we never saw may never have glimpsed the side of her we knew. But the more sides of her they see and understand, the more they’ll appreciate who she is, the better they’ll know themselves, and, though the first grader in me is loath to admit it, the more they might be inclined to love her.

When you go home for the holidays – or call home, or whatever you do – open that metaphorical door you’ve never before investigated. Even if there’s just a closet behind it, as you always suspected, the closet probably isn’t empty. And you never know when what you thought was a closet door will turn out to lead to a whole wing of the house you’ve never seen. Here are some of the unexpected things I’ve encountered in my family by doing this, sides I hadn’t seen or considered of people I’ve known well.

On the subject of Moms who are teachers and vice versa, my mother taught school for several years before my siblings and I arrived. One day, only a few years ago, I committed an act of family history and searched for her in the newspaper collection at WorldVitalRecords.

One of the articles I found was about her older sister’s wedding; it described the bride’s and the bridesmaids’ dresses. The descriptions of dresses were mostly lost on me, but until that very moment, I had never thought of my mother as a bridesmaid. It was another side to see.

Another article or two described her in the role of a young high school government teacher in a very small Idaho town. She took one of her classes on a trip to Washington, DC, to see what they had been learning about. I deduced that she was an unusually energetic teacher, and ambitious for her students to learn and see and experience. These days, one does not casually set out from Arco, Idaho, with a batch of students, and travel 2000 miles each way on a field trip. One did not do so in the 1950s, either.

Sometimes asking about things you already know can be illuminating. I recently asked my father, who I knew served in the US Air Force in Japan during the Korean war, how he got to Korea, and if he stopped in Hawaii on the way. The answer was a story I had never heard, with some historical matter I did not know. He got there on a troop transport, via Hawaii. Most of the men on the ship were army soldiers fresh out of training and on their way to the front lines. For a while, the US Army trained new soldiers in Hawaii, but they stopped doing so for a rather grim reason. Hawaii’s distance from the mainland made it impossible for many of them to see their loved ones after training and before deployment. More than a few of them died in Korea. The sorrow and tragedy of this was compounded by the fact they never saw their families that last time before deploying halfway around the world. Training was moved stateside.

My parents were confirmed homebodies. Even when I was a child, we rarely traveled to any distant location that wasn’t the home of some close relative or other (usually grandparents). When I won an award at the end of high school that took me to Washington, DC, for a week, and they were invited to their own week of activities, they brushed off the possibility until almost the last minute. Then they decided to go, bought some unnecessarily expensive plane tickets (missing the advance purchase discounts), and had a very enjoyable trip. At the end of that week, they said it was so much fun that they should do that sort of thing again soon. They never did. Now, some three decades later, I’m still learning about my dad’s earlier travels in other parts of the nation and the world – most of which I knew only in the most general outlines, if I knew of them at all. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s interesting, and I struggle a bit to envision him as a world traveler.

Ross Babcock in WWI Uniform

My grandfather, Ross Babcock, in his infantry uniform

Sometimes that metaphorical closet door I mentioned is literally a door. My cousin and I weren’t consciously committing an act of family history, just a few years after first grade, when we found a storage building door on our grandpa’s farm unlocked and decided to explore. We found his infantry rifle from World War I. This led directly to a very cranky reproof from the weapon’s owner, and to our learning some remarkable things about him and his wartime experience from some aunts and uncles.

News articles (also at WorldVitalRecords) and a death certificate I found for one of my aunts led me to a much-revised understanding of her demise and some insights into my parents’ ways and words, when they were raising me. I’ve written about that before. Later, I committed another, more calculated act of family history and asked a favorite aunt about it. She likes to talk, and I like to listen, and she described how traumatic the events were for my grandparents, both at the time and for years to come. Not many years after the tragedy, I was born and began to become acquainted with these grandparents. They were kind, friendly, charming, jovial, and unbelievably hard working; I had no idea at the time of their great sorrow.

Here’s my suggestion: One way or another, commit a small act of family history this holiday season. If you like it, commit two. You might hear something worth remembering. You might learn something you never imagined about people you already know well, or someone they’re old enough to remember, but you aren’t. If so, write it down. Share it – maybe even on the Web, if that’s appropriate. (The point is to understand, appreciate, and even admire, not to embarrass, demean, or imperil.) Record your conversations as audio or video, if you can – but only with advance permission, if you want to be invited back for holiday dinner or for more family history.

Happy holidays!

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3 Responses to “The Sides We Don’t See (or Commit a Small Act of Family History this Season)”

  1. paula bennett says:

    I am currently working with 2 schools in my area to get some voluntary calsles after a school day, they thought this was a great Idea so I started with the things we need to know before we delve to deep. I will be giving search lessons and personal
    We first need to know our own family so mom and dad are at home so start asking them questions about th eir childhood etc.

    I can’ wait to get this u; and running
    Paula Wilson Bennett
    ** personal contact information redacted **

  2. Jennie Brady says:

    I agree. It is important, and usually fascinating, to delve into our ancestors’ stories beyond just the names and dates. I have been doing what I call “putting meat on the bones” for many years. I felt it was important to know my family more personally, as “people”, so I have done all I can to find people who knew them so I can get to know their personalities and character; obtain as much medical information on their daily health and causes of their deaths; things they liked and how they made their living, etc. Through this research my grandparents, great grandparents, and many aunts & uncles and other relatives further back have “come alive” for me and I have a better understanding of their lives and times. I am making albums for my children so they will appreciate their family members better. I hope others will do similar for their families.

  3. JC says:

    Nice post. Obtaining information about ancestors’ experiences and motivations transforms their identity from a set of places and dates on a document or in a book. It brings alive who they were as a person, which to me, is the most rewarding aspect of genealogy.

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