Have any of you seen the connection between memoir writing and genealogy?

+14 votes

In his book, The Writer Who Stayed, William Zinsser writes, "There are many good reasons for writing your memoir without having it published. One is to leave your children and grandchildren a record of who you were and what heritage you were born into. . . . Time surprises us by running out. One of the saddest sentences I know is, "I wish I had asked my mother about that."

Every time I write up a profile of an ancestor, I think of that. Surely, those record keepers in the past, both serious and casual, had no idea we would have access to them from microfiche and scanned documents online today. We retell what we know of our ancestors' stories, sometimes celebrating, sometimes even passing judgment on them. And hardly ever do we know enough! I don't know about you, but since I've been doing genealogy, I wish I had asked my mother about a lot of things. The best stories, though, are gone.

Since I've watched Louis Gates' PBS series "Finding Your Roots," I keep returning to this question. Gates' celebrities are as hungry for knowledge as the rest of us, and many of them have less knowledge of their ancestral past than we do. I just saw the season 1 episode on Barbara Walters who thought she knew her past, and even she didn't know (without Gates' help) where her surname came from!

asked in Policy and Style by Bob Scrivens G2G6 Mach 1 (16.5k points)
edited by Bob Scrivens

2 Answers

+4 votes
Best answer

Great point about memoirs!

None of my family members ever went to the lengths of writing memoirs, but I do have two single sheets of paper that were written by my ancestors in the early-1990s that have proven to be valuable in my current research.

The first is my grandfather's account of how my great-grandparents met that my cousin wrote down in the early 1990s:


While some of the details are clearly exaggerated/fictionalized, the story of how my great-grandparents met matches up perfectly with the marriage records I have found for them.  Amazingly, the list of the 13 children (and many of the details associated with the children) matches up perfectly with everything I have found in birth and census records.  In fact, the list in this paper laid out the exact set of 13 names that I needed to find.  I have found a nearly complete set of birth, death (and marriage records for those who lived)  for all 13 of the children listed.

The second paper is my Great Aunt's own handwritten notes on her father:


Despite a long and exhaustive search, I have been unable to find the name of the German town where my great-grandfather was born.  My Aunt Bertha's half page of notes on her Father have been invaluable to me as I try to search for him.  Like any second-hand account, I have had to challenge and attempt to verify every detail with official records.  And, while I haven't tracked down his actual birth record yet, I remain optimistic as this paper has given me many names to try in searches.

Similar to Bob and Eowyn, I wish that I had "memoirs" of any form for my ancestors.  In the two examples above, just having written stories that I can attempt to study and verify really makes it engaging and challenging in my long pursuit to track down the birthplaace of my great-grandfather.   

answered by Ray Jones G2G6 Pilot (149k points)
selected by Mary Hammond
+6 votes
My grandfather has dementia now and while you can sort of piece together some of the truths in what he says, it's hard to know anymore what is right and what is incorrect.  He was very into genealogy a lot of his later life and even traveled back to Maine to visit where his ancestors settled in the late 1600s.  His notes are a scattered mess and there aren't too many days that go by where I wish I had sat down with him when he was still clear minded and asked him about the family and the history!
answered by Eowyn Langholf G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
Yea that is on thing I wonder about with my birth relatives.... I hardly know them and many that I did know are dead and gone. Maybe I should contact some of the living ones now while I have the chance instead of reading that they are just a memory as well. And then looking at my tree wishing They could tell me their story :)

Doing family research really underlines the pain of dementia and other memory robbing, age related, diseases. Even strokes. I started to notice I was having "retrieval" problems with names while I was teaching school before I retired. Now, it's names and short term memory, for which I have elaborate work-arounds. All I can say is, thank God for cut and paste, because I have trouble copying from new sources onto my WikiTree and Geni. I marvel at my cousin, who took me to an obscure cemetery to see a relative's tombstone, one that he had seen once more than a decade ago!

So the memoir thing is a little more personal to me. If I live long enough, I may not have the tools I have today, even though they're not as "sharp" as they once were. No one should go to a family reunion without a notebook, audio recorder, and a camera. Once you miss the opportunities, they're gone forever.

There are a number of fine books out there on memoir writing. One item they universally address is how we alter memories as we get older. And it doesn't have to be disease that does it. I have relatives with splendid memories who "reconstruct" the past--an event where I've been present--and I hardly recognize it! Embellishment some would say. That suggests that it's a willful restyling for effect. Not necessarily. We have these prejudices, needs, and idealizations, all of which color our take on events. You know what? I'm surprised we even know what we do with any kind of accuracy! Take a look at particle physics, how we really can't say where and what something is at the same time. The subject is more heady than it seems at first.

But I guess that's enough "deep thinking" for one day. Do you Grok?

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