Genealogy and Us: The Confounding Situation of Genealogical Incompatibility
I was very excited the other day. I had been talking on the phone with an elderly cousin who said ‘You should talk to our daughter. I just gave her all my family history work and our photo albums.” My excitement turned sour when, after making the call and explaining I was referred by her mother and it was about a family history question I had, the response was: “Sorry, I don’t give a (explicative deleted) about that kind of garbage.”
While the disconnected phone hummed in my hand all I could do was sit and stare at it. Well, that wasn’t all. I know I sighed out loud and then after closing my phone, slammed my fist down on my desk. What a mix of emotions. Sadness, emptiness, sorrow, frustration, loss, anger, bewilderment, and at least a few others mixed in. All I could think about was all those photos and information.
I thought about this situation for a while and decided I needed to take some kind of proactive action. So I sat down and wrote a letter, explained my interest again, and asked the family if they would kindly just put the letter in the back of one of the photo albums in case anyone in the future ever decided they had an interest in family history and would like to have my contact information. I have no idea if my letter made it to the photo album or just into the recycling bin, but at least I tried.
I believe, and others may well disagree with me on this, what I call ‘genealogical incompatibility’ is one of the most frustrating ‘brick walls’ we can encounter.
Almost any other kind of problem we can attack by diving into our research, seeking new sources, or reading new or different books to try and figure out an answer to our question. But when someone just doesn’t care – and they hold some precious family treasure – it is just pure frustration.
A different aspect of ‘genealogical incompatibility’ I encounter is when I ask family members to recount for me, allow me to record, or write down their family stories and memories, but they steadfastly refuse. Most often the response from folks like this is something along the lines of ‘Heck no! You know that story already.’ Or perhaps it is something like “I already told you that story. There’s no reason to tell it again.” Responses like this make me wish everyone was more like my paternal grandfather who loved to tell stories and would tell them, and retell them, with the tiniest bit of asking.
I know some people get embarrassed being recorded, some folks get nervous, and some folks think you have some nefarious reason for wanting to get their stories. Plus there is the huge issue with so many folks that asking them to record their stories in any format equates to telling them ‘I think you are going to die.’ But no matter what the reason to be reticent to talk, oh how I wish more folks would simply be happy to talk, talk, and then talk some more. Especially when it comes to family history, stories, memories, and family lore.
Just writing about this takes me back to my youth and time spent with my great-uncle Jim Vanek. I would beg him to tell some of his stories to me for the umpteenth time. Invariably he would say no. It usually took a good three or four polite requests before you would see the change. First he would ask my great-aunt Em for a beer. While he waited he would light, or relight, his ever present cigar. When the beer came he would drain the bottle without swallowing, sit back with a smile, and begin to blow the most perfect smoke rings I have ever seen to this day. At this point as a young boy I was spellbound and the stories hadn’t even begun! Then he would look you in the eye, say ‘now listen closely’ and off we went on a tour that had no equal. Was I ever a lucky kid!
I never had the ability back then to record Uncle Jim, but I did write down all his stories as best I could for my children and grandchildren. And while I can’t drink a beer the way he did, nor blow smoke rings, I can tell a pretty decent story!
I just wish we all came pre-wired to love genealogy and family history!