What happens when you start to ask questions about your family’s past?
Some things get lost in the cracks of history — or simply are hidden. Services like Ancestry.com have made it possible for everyone to become a family historian.
The search is worth it, but the process should come with a warning label, because you might learn — like I did — that your step-great-great-grandmother might have murdered your great-great-grandfather with a hatchet.
I was a history major in college. With a course of studies focused on early modern Europe, I learned about the Reformation, trade, wars, culture and, through it all, great families. It struck me that I really did not know anything about my own family history, in spite of knowing so much about so many great ones across history.
From time to time, my grandfather and I discussed the task of purchasing a membership to Ancestry.com and digging into old records. The membership cost always deterred me. It seemed odd to pay to scavenge for information about myself and my family. And I never knew when to ask my grandparents to pull out bins of family photos to pick through and ask questions. It just never seemed like the right time.
But then, in January, I took a class that gave me an opportunity to delve into what I had long avoided.
The class assigned each of the 16 students to find a single photograph that intrigued us. The goal was to figure out what was taking place in that frozen moment. We could choose any photograph we liked. We were all drawn to family photos, and with that, the project began with a familial theme. We would spend the next two months twisting along whatever routes our reporting took us as we tried to sort out what we were looking at.
One classmate found an old photo of her great-grandmother beaming at the dashing young man she would marry. He turned out to be a Nazi war criminal. Another found her parents’ wedding picture, which led to the story of their 48-hour arranged courtship in India. Yet another settled on a photograph of her father and his brother as young boys, years before the brother’s death in an accident. The stories that emerged were shocking. Each generation’s experiences rippled into the next.
I began with a photograph of my father’s mother looking glamorous, holding a cocktail, at a work party in London. Then, I changed my focus to a photo of her parents before finally shifting my attention elsewhere. I settled on a photograph of my mother’s mother with a woman I’d never met: my step-great-great-grandmother, who, I discovered by a passing mention — because no one in my family had spoken about it before — may have murdered my great-great-grandfather with a hatchet nearly a century ago.
The reporting led to a published collection of stories that revealed secrets, tragedies, love affairs and heartbreak. It was a reporting experience that was emotional for us all. It’s a risky thing, to report these stories, to ask the questions we shouldn’t have asked and offer them to the world to read.
But the process was worth it. I learned stories that spanned far beyond the scope of the one story I wrote about. I learned about relatives in the United Kingdom and how they coped during World War II. I learned that a great-great-grandfather invented the speedometer, but the idea was stolen due to his lack of patent. The stories fall away from the master narrative but contribute to the culture that has built it over generations.
I also became even closer with my grandparents, and to be honest, there is no greater benefit than that.
Every family has a story, but stories tend to change over time in subtle ways. Going back in time to fill in the blanks is risky, but in the end, it’s worth it.
Morgan E. Hines recently graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The book written by the class, “The Unraveling,” was published this spring.