Oct 022012

Our US Records online study group has re-invigorated itself after a period of inactivity. We are turning to Chapter 10 in Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. In that chapter Greenwood writes:

“Someone has said that there is little point in digging up an ancestor if you aren’t going to make him live. If that is true –and I believe it is – your job is not finished until you feel a bit of what he felt, have shared vicariously in his joys and heartaches –perhaps shed a tear with him in his sorrow, laughed at the humor in his life and felt pride in his accomplishments.”

Part of our assignment is to reflect upon that statement and share how we go about that task.

Let me begin with a semantic quibble with Greenwood’s statement. While I like the general tenor of the statement, I don’t believe my job is to make my ancestors “live.” Instead, I believe it is my task as genealogist / family historian to tell their stories. My model for such ancestor story telling is based on the novel, Speaker for the Dead. This science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card continues the Ender saga. Ender, now known as Andrew Wiggin, is summoned to speak on behalf of Marcão, who died some years before. The Speaker’s job is to tell the truth of Marcão’s story, from Marcão’s perspective…

“Speakers research the dead person’s life and give a speech that attempts to speak for them, describing the person’s life as he or she tried to live it. This speech is not given in order to persuade the audience to condemn or forgive the deceased, but rather a way to understand the person as a whole, including any flaws or misdeeds.”   (see: Wikipedia)

As a pastor, I would often use this approach at a funeral service. The first time I tried it, I met with the daughter and son of the man whose funeral service I was to conduct. They told me many stories about their dad, a crusty old curmudgeon who found it difficult to make outward displays of caring and affection toward his family. There was always a distance between him and his children. After the funeral service had been completed, the son and daughter came to me with tears in their eyes saying, “You seemed to know our father better than we did.” “No,” I told them. “I only knew your father through your eyes; but your stories gave me permission to look at those accounts through his eyes. It was all there, packed into your stories.”

That is the challenge that I have undertaken as a genealogist / family historian – namely, to do the research that will allow me to unpack my ancestor’s story as she/he tried to live it, to understand them as a whole person, warts and all. Sometimes the needed research is many layers deep; at other times, a single picture / letter / newspaper article / etc. will suffice.

My 2g-grandfather, John Brenner, arrived from Germany in 1856 as an 18 year-old young man sailing alone. He was heading for Columbiana County, Ohio, where his older brother, Conrad, was living. Conrad had come to America a few years before John. According to John’s obituary in Rundschau, the German-speaking newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, John’s 36 day ocean crossing was a storm-tossed one. His arrival in America was just as storm-tossed… as he was mugged on the dock and robbed of all his earthly possessions. An 18 year old young man who travels alone from Adelshofen, Baden, to LeHavre, France, to book passage on a ship to America has already shown something of a pioneer spirit. The obituary simply stated that, after being robbed, John walked from New York to Philadelphia where he knew of some friends from whom he has able to borrow enough money for train fare to Rochester, New York. After two years in Rochester, John finally made it to Conrad’s home in Ohio. The pioneer spirit and determination that under-girded the beginning of John’s journey in Germany, served John well in the New World.

So, I like to think of myself as a speaker for the dead or, to use another analogy, an ancestor whisperer – one who tells a truer story about my ancestors than vital statistics ever can.

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