The Reluctant Family Historian

Ethel’s wedding portrait, c. 1908

By Chris Little

You know how sometimes you get an idea that won’t let go? That keeps you up at night and leaves you daydreaming at a green traffic light? Well, I’ve been trying to shake this one for awhile, with little success.

I hesitate even to write it down, but in the interest of courage and accountability, I’m going to tell you that I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a biography of my great-grandmother, Ethel. I’ve mentioned her here before: born in 1882, a portrait artist, mother of three, survivor of the Depression, she was also an occasional journal-keeper, a devoted letter-writer, and a scrapbook-constructing family historian in her own right. I’m fascinated by her, and part of me would love to gather all the yellowing bits of paper I have of hers and knit them together into her story.

But I have to admit another part of me is repelled by the idea—and I can get a little whiny about it: “You had your chance, Ethel,” I sometimes catch myself thinking. “You lived your life, you wrote your stories. Now it’s my turn. Why should I spend my life writing about yours?” That part of me really doesn’t want to spend hours and weeks and months in the basement sifting through dusty letters and journals, trying to decipher her atrocious handwriting and make a history out of what it says.

Still, the idea won’t let go, and my whining is increasingly drowned out by my interest. I’ve been transcribing her journals—like the one she kept as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in 1898. And the one she kept as a 25-year-old working artist in 1907, as she was being courted by my great-grandfather. And the one she kept on her honeymoon trip to Europe in 1909. In each of them she’s slightly different—sentimental and romantic in 1898, curt and businesslike in 1907, entranced by the colors of Italy and Switzerland in 1909. But her handwriting is such a mess even her relatives complain about it in letters to each other—I know: I’ve transcribed them too! Sometimes I have to retrace the track of her pencil with my finger on the table, over and over, to try to guess what she wrote. I’m getting a little better at it, the more of her writing I read, and it’s funny the sense of triumph I feel when I suddenly recognize just what it was she was writing.

With her children, c. 1920

I was thinking the other day that the deeper I get into this project, the more it seems to me that Ethel’s life, her joys and sorrows and pleasures and disappointments, are echoed in mine—not the same circumstances, to be sure, but the feelings animating them. Like when she walks back down her driveway after waving goodbye to her youngest son as he leaves for the Navy, and she remarks on how quiet and empty the house feels? Oh yes, I’ve been there! And when she comments about her daughter growing into a perfect companion, kind and tolerant and wise, I find myself nodding my head. Yes, I get that too. So I wonder if that’s part of the reason people like to look into their family histories, to find out that their ancestors were a lot like them—to connect with them somehow. This is as close as Ethel and I will get to sharing a pot of tea, and it’s pretty fun. Anyway, my whining is beginning to feel displaced—because in a way, learning and writing about Ethel’s story is a way of living, and understanding, my own. Does that make sense?

In her garden, c. 1950

Still, sometimes it gets to be too much, all that reading about the little things that were exciting or upsetting to people who’ve been dead for decades. When I start to feel weighed down by it all,  I take myself for a walk, or start dinner, or do some work on a freelance project. There’s only so much time I can put into this project in any given day, and that’s going to have to be okay.

Anyway, I’d like to revisit this topic from time to time as I slowly sink deeper into the Ethel Project, as I’ve come to call it. In the meantime I’d love to hear whether you’ve ever had any interest in learning more about your ancestors, or even just a relative a generation or two back. Why do you think you’ve wanted to do that? What do you think you’ve gained from it?

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3 thoughts on “The Reluctant Family Historian

  1. A fascinating blog post, Chris! I think that family history is interesting to many people. Somewhere along the way my thinking shifted from being about who I am, in relation to biological roots, and I began considering where I am / what I am about in the larger picture of this life, in relation to those I have made my family ~ no matter how we came together! Your idea got me thinking … what if I created a “family tree” / timeline about those who have become my family — perhaps adding in details about how we met and some of the things we have experienced together? Perhaps I could also include people and places that have shaped my life and helped me to become the person I am today? After all, isn’t that what people are really often searching for? Thank you for sharing your upcoming project!

    • Jen, I LOVE this idea! Will you please do your created-family tree — and then report back on it? I’ve often thought about the web of people in my life and their different roles and influence, it would be great to have a way to look at them all at once in some way. That’s very inspiring — I really hope you do it. And then tell us about it. Thanks for sharing your idea!!!

  2. Pingback: Researching a Family History: Why Bother? | Off the Merry-Go-Round

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