Sunday, May 27, 2018
Stumbling Over Family Secrets
Spending a good chunk of my holiday weekend wrapping up a family history project, I was surprised to learn from records that one man in my Taliaferro line had actually taken the name of his step-father. Of course, that's not unusual; I once had a friend who had gone by his step-father's name—name of the man who raised him—but when reaching adulthood, decided to revert to using his own, legal name, that of his birth father.
It isn't so much details such as this that surprise me. What does cause me to wonder is a corollary question: who knew? Did this man's grandchildren know they were called by a name other than the one their grandfather received when he was born?
Of course, another question might be, And do they even care? Very likely, they may not—if they are still here to learn about it. But what if they do care about their heritage?
I ran across this same problem years ago, when researching my husband's Kelly line. One of the brothers of his great grandmother had married a widow with a young son. In one census, the boy's surname was that of his birth father; in the next available record, he was going by the surname Kelly. That wasn't just a fluke in a census record, though, for all subsequent records I could find were under that second surname. And I wondered then whether any of his children were told.
Of course, now, all one has to do i such a case is take a DNA test—especially a Y-DNA test for the males in a family line—and discover all the unexpected matches that show up in the results. I know people now who do so—and puzzle over the outcome. They had no clue. Perhaps with some due diligence on the genealogical research front, the answer could be quickly uncovered. There are many times, I suspect, when that doesn't become the case.
In the process of returning one of the antique photographs I rescued to a family member, I uncovered some details there which indicated that the boy in the household was likely the adopted son of the father—and yet, descendants talked as if referring to a blood line, rather than an adopted family line. Of course, as I'm a stranger to that family circle, it's likely there was no need to reveal such details to me—and I certainly opted to not make any mention, myself. But I saw the record. And wondered.
Granted, for those of us who administer DNA test results for others, an important question is, "Do you want me to alert you to any surprises which testing might reveal?" For some people, it's best not to know details which might disturb them; that is a choice each person has to make when moving into the DNA testing process.
But it isn't just DNA testing which reveals secrets. Just take a thorough, disciplined approach to researching family members in archived newspapers and much can be learned—including items which a descendant might rather have left covered. I've seen adoptions explained in newspaper articles, black sheep outed in news articles, family feuds and scandals all aired in public through the reporting process. Nothing, it seems, remains private—especially in the small towns in middle America.
There is a perverse part of me which wants to blurt out to descendants, "Did you know?" But a saner part of me exercises the needed restraint. I've had class members pepper me with questions, after telling me about messy family details from past generations and the fallout still with them in the current decade, wanting to know how to deal with certain relatives who don't want to know the truth.
If they don't ask, I maintain, don't tell. You can't impose the truth on people. They have to be ready to hear it. And even then, it may be a difficult process to work through before acceptance brings peace—if ever.
Families are unquestionably messy. Some emerge from home life relatively unscathed. Others escape with stories that would make the producers of reality TV shows blush. Some know all the details. Some don't. And some are in denial.
Coming to grips with a messy family history is something that undoubtedly takes time. It's a process—if the journey is even begun willingly. For those of us who have stumbled upon the truth unwittingly—simply owing to our ability to perform thorough research, even on other families—we need to think first, before saying anything, "How would I feel if this were a discovery about my immediate family?"
Of course, the answer is different for each individual. But a little introspection before moving closer to the step of gently revealing details is a good start.