Friday, May 16, 2014

Captivated By Story

On the evening following our monthly local genealogical society meeting I realized what, exactly, it was about these several Irish immigrant families—the Maloys, the Flanagans, the Tullys, the Flannerys—that monopolized my attention. While I’m still committed to pursuing the facts of the matter—the vital drone of birth, marriage, death, then next generation, rinse and repeat—it is not fact but story that compels me to pursue these ancestors.

The speaker for last night’s society meeting had a story of her own to convey. It involved a murder mystery, a precedent-setting court case, all set within a milieu of Chinese immigrant life in Exclusion Act era California. After sharing such details within the passing hour, she asked her audience, “Are you engaged?”

Yes! How could we not be? It was story that pulled us in.

After the meeting, I thought about that experience. What made it so compelling? You couldn’t really say it was action. Nor drama. Nor the cast of characters. Somehow, though, we stayed with her through the whole recitation, giving our tacit permission for her to take us places that were foreign to our own experience.

That made me realize what it was that allowed me to find my own family’s ancestors so captivating: it was story. Not grand, not action-packed. Just a miniscule sliver of the human condition unfolding soap-opera-slowly before an audience with a vested interest: the interest in what happened next—to my ancestors.

In mulling that one over, I realized what keeps me going on my research goals is not, “And who was his father?” but “And what happened to make him do that?”

I’ve always been an evangelist for story. “Tell the story,” I tell other researchers. But so many retort that their ancestors didn’t lead interesting lives. Nonsense, I think—and more so, now that I’ve had time to think that one over. Life is one gigantic, evolving chain reaction. Everything we’ve ever done can be prefaced by the listing of a cause. Our story becomes one “…and then?” sequence in reverse, when seen from that vantage point. Each preceding step—as we push our way back further in time—comes into view as a mystery for which we seek a resolution.

At least, that’s how I see it. Especially now, after realizing it, thanks to last night’s presentation. Perhaps you see it differently. Whatever it is, though, there is something about the story of it all that grabs us and pulls us in for a closer look. The genealogy that gets documented in the process is really just the byproduct. If it weren’t for story, we wouldn’t ever get to know our ancestors at all.


  1. Ah, the "why did they do that?" and "what made them do this?" questions... they have always been foremost in my mind - and are hard questions to answer - those things aren't recorded in censuses.

    1. Sometimes, it takes a lot of reading between the lines...connecting the dots...conjecture. Can't happen without stepping back and taking in the bigger big picture.

  2. I am still transcribing that Farm Diary I am in 1918 now..and wonder how my husbands Grandparents survived Minnesota in winter...but they did. I wish they would write more about their feelings...but at least I am getting a glimpse into their lives:)

    1. You're right, Far Side: at least you are getting that glimpse. And that stoic way may be part of their story, too. For some, feelings just weren't what they wrote about. Your reflections on what you are reading become part of the story, as well. It takes your knowing how challenging it is, day to day, to live through a Minnesota winter to provide the insight into the actual difficulties they faced. An annotated version of their diary--inserting your comments into specific spots in their narrative as you react to what you are reading--would be one way for you to pass along Far Guy's grandparents' legacy to your own descendants.


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