Family tree research – doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? In fact it sounds depressingly like something old people with time on their hands do. Which is true of me, perhaps, though I like to think of myself as older …
Anyway, I embarked on some of this a few weeks ago. I’d put it it off for about 40 years as I thought I’d better things to. Maybe I was wrong.
My initial motivation was curiosity about the obvious black sheep character in my family – one of my grandfathers – who allegedly was “a useless drunk” (my father’s words) and had been thrown out of his own family home in Glasgow by his own sons when they became old enough. I soon learned that he died of TB in a hospital in 1939 – not living with his family and presumably alone. A dramatic and tragic tale made more intriguing by the rumour that he’d also been wounded at Gallipolli – did this explain his later decline, I wondered? Would the story of his eviction and rejection help explain my own dad’s distant and difficult relationship with me?
Well, one of the things I quickly realised in my research was that you don’t find the answers to questions like that – though you can, perhaps, get some facts assembled that allow you to make better guesses. But what you do learn is that there are all sorts of questions that you’d never even thought of asking.
Take my Granny, for instance. Writing this, I automatically typed her name with a capital letter because as a child I was taught to think of her as a fearsome, upright, revered and long-suffering Scots woman who you did not cross. My Mum was certainly intimidated by her, but maybe that’s what most women feel about their mother’s-in-law?
However, I slowly uncovered an unexpected Granny tale: I’d started out with a vision of a heroic picture of a woman who dealt determinedly with the failings of her husband and then laboured stoically with the burden of bringing up 6 children alone. But the truth is messier than that – isn’t it always?
Family mythology always placed my father as the eldest of her children, followed by his first sister (who in later years became the embodiment of primness and correctness). Bombshell No 1 was my discovery that the sister was born before my dad – and just a few months before Granny’s marriage – a shotgun wedding, no less.
So, next question – how come Granny – a young woman (18 at the time) – ended up pregnant by this possibly unsavory character and, come to think of it, how come none of her own brothers and sisters (all older than her) came to the rescue when she was dealing with 6 children unaided?
Time to look a generation further back in more detail, I decided. I started to delve deeper – and also to spend money on subscribing to pay-per-view records. There was even an element of gambling thrill to this – every time you pay some of the credits you’ve bought, you have to hope or guess that that the record you’re about to see is about someone you’re looking for and not some other person with the same name. You win some, you lose some.
Gripped by mild gambling fever (it’s nice when you do win), I scrutinised my great-grand-parents records and soon realised that Granny’s parents were not the simple straightforward pairing I’d first thought. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century he had emigrated from Ireland to Scotland and, much more unexpectedly, he’d already married twice when he finally married Granny’s mum. So that made all Granny’s brothers and sisters probably just half-siblings.
Granny’s mum was no less intriguing. She too had married previously – to a bizarrely-named sailor and probably had a child by him.
So Granny’s marital role models were pretty ropey. That might be part of an explanation – so much for the stability and respectability of old-time family life.
But to the next question that arose: after Granny’s parents died (both gone by the time she was 12), where did she disappear to? Her 2 older (half?) brothers had by then married and started families of their own but the remaining 3 were living together as orphans – but without her, strangely. Was she farmed out to another relative? Shipped back to Ireland temporarily? Sent to live with other people by her rejecting half-siblings? A homeless waif and stray in the tenements of Glasgow? I simply don’t know (well, not yet, anyway – another thing I’ve learned is that family history research is never finished!)
So, the time Granny next surfaces in the record books, she’s got pregnant and married. Did she stay with her husband long? How and when did the marriage collapse? Again, records don’t really tell you that – but he was at least getting back into her bed 16 years after the marriage ’cause that’s when the last of her children were born.
So what have I learned? That the skeletons you find aren’t necessarily the ones you were looking for. That the past is something we change and shape using our own perspectives and value judgements. That the more answers you seek, the more questions you raise.
And, surprisingly, that researching your family tree can actually be compulsively interesting. Must stop writing know as I want to take a look at my great-great grandfather’s siblings …
Imagine you want to buy something, right?
You go to the shops in search of it. The owner of the shop says you can’t come in unless you ask him where everything is and what it costs. He says he won’t charge you and it seems like it might be easier this way as he seems to know lots about everything for sale inside. So he takes you in and shows you around, urging you to buy various things.
You end up asking to buy the thing you want – well, the nearest thing he can find for you – even though you’re a bit suspicious by now as you’re sure there must be something in it for him. He then tells you that the price tag on what you’re after is invisible. He can guess what you should pay for it, he tells you, but he can’t be certain. You make an offer but he then explains that the item doesn’t actually belong to him but to somebody else who’s using the shop to sell it. He says he’ll talk to them about what you’ve offered for it.
He gets back to you after a while and says that the offer is a great one but the seller wants to wait a bit in case somebody else offers more for it. Sure enough, somebody does – but the shopkeeper won’t tell you how much they’ve offered, only that you must offer more if you want to buy it. So you cautiously do. It then dawns on you that he and the seller know a lot more than you do about the transaction and that the mugs who are shelling out (that’s you and somebody else out there) are being used against each other to get as much as possible for the seller and the shopkeeper. But you haven’t much choice as there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else you buy these kind of things.
Imagine now what would happen if you wanted to sell something similar in the same shopping world.
You take what you’ve got down to the shop and ask the shop owner to sell it for you. He insists on a percentage fee of whatever it’s sold for. You agree ’cause you can’t see how anyone who wants your product will get to know about it unless they come to the shop. Eventually someone buys your thing and the shopkeeper takes his cut. You’re wondering what he did to earn this apart from putting it on the shelf and keeping the shop open but there you go, that’s life.
Now imagine you want to sell one thing and buy a different version of it, all at the same time.
The shopkeeper shows you some things you might consider buying for yourself and explains that the reason they’re so expensive is that lots of people want them. He urges you to make an offer for one you like (he still won’t tell you the price of anything). It’s a very expensive thing you’re buying – possibly the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought in your life – but he tells you you must hurry and make an offer before someone else comes into the shop and snaps it up. So you do.
The cycle of hidden offers being pitched against each other – you’re beginning to get the picture now, yes? – then begins, complicated this time by the fact that you can’t actually afford to buy the expensive thing you’re after unless you succeed in selling the one you’re trying to get rid of.
By now you’ve been to the shop dozens of times and beginning to wish you’d never started. But having put all this effort in, you persist and end up agreeing to an offer on what you’re selling and you get an offer accepted on what you’re buying (though it’s sadly more than you wanted to pay, largely because of the blind auction you had to go through to get your offer accepted).
The shopkeeper then tells you that everything’s fine except the people you’re selling to and buying from are also in the same position as you – needing to sell before they themselves can buy, so the whole transaction will now have to go on ice until everyone involved ( which may, of course, ultimately involve lots of other people further up and down the chain in both directions) are in a position to buy, sell or both. The only way this can happen, of course is by finding someone at either end of the chain who doesn’t need to do both things at once for some reason (such as having loads of money).
Eventually, the world becomes full of people wanting to buy and sell things but unable to do either. Unless, of course, somebody cracks and agrees to do just one part of the process, which then triggers a series of transactions – all of which the shopkeeper takes a cut from.
Have I convinced you yet that this doesn’t seem a very fair or efficient way of organizing commerce? Have you noticed that the only person to really benefit from the system being arranged in this way is the shopkeeper?
Take my advice then. Don’t ever try to buy or sell your house, especially through an estate agent. There must be a better way, if I could only think of it.
In the meantime, I’m off to murder mine.