Monday, February 22, 2016

Everybody Has a Story

Driving around town yesterday, I realized something. It's not just those "dead people" we genealogists love to research who hide those great stories. That compelling sixth sense that helps us sniff out a great story from our family history isn't part of our makeup because we do genealogy; it may just be there because, well, life is messy. And it's the messy stuff—and what we do about it—that creates great stories.

Not for the people who are going through that mess right now, of course. But later—especially for those of us who held our breath, wondering how it all would turn out—that's the stuff great stories are made of. We want to find out: did our hero make it okay? Did he or she overcome the odds, make a better life of it, learn something life-changing—or succumb to the circumstances? We want to know that, even when our hero is just the guy down the street (or the gal two generations back), no different than we are—as long as we first become aware that a story is brewing just beneath the surface of this everyday person's life.

People-watching tells us a great deal. My daughter often says she'd be content just to sit in an airport terminal and watch all the people pass by. The snippets of life that unfold before such an observer can generate volumes of visceral details for an astute storyteller.

So when my husband and I took the occasion in yesterday's beautiful weather to look around us as we drove through town, it wasn't hard to spot people and wonder what their story might be. Like the curly-bearded redhead we saw, riding his bicycle against the light, in the crosswalk on the wrong side of the street, just as traffic was attempting to turn into his lane—nonchalant to it all, he just wobbled along at the slowest speed possible. Where was he going? Why wasn't he concerned? I want to know the story.

Of course, there are always those homeless people—especially the ones with a story—whose story isn't really the one they are telling us as they ask for that dollar that will fill their gas tank and get them all the way to their home sixty miles away. I always wonder: what got them there? Are they satisfied with how things turned out? Would they have done anything different if they could? I never have the guts to march right over and accost one of them with this barrage of questions. But I still want to ask.

When you think of the myriad faces that flash by you in a day while you are at work, or rushing in to the store, or riding the train home, do they just become a blur? Or do any of those moving pictures suddenly become a stop-frame snapshot with a question posted below for a caption? Which are the faces that stay with you, long after you've left your day behind?

I realized today that these are the questions that motivate me to ferret out those human dramas. The stories that surface as I research various lines of my genealogy might seem to be secondary to a love of family history. But perhaps I've gotten that order wrong. Is it genealogy that causes us to chase the stories? Do we love the stories because we love genealogy? Or do we seek the stories, whether they are tied to our family's history or not?

When we realize that, family or not, famous or insignificant, successful or poverty-stricken, everybody has a story, it makes us understand how overwhelming the task becomes to capture and preserve the best of them—especially when we realize that, though each one of us embodies a life story, the most fascinating or compelling of them may be buried deep beneath the surface. The trick is to know how to dig without harming the personal context, to extract with the respect that doesn't disrupt that personal environment. And yet, to breathe life into the retelling of that story so it can live again for the benefit of those who weren't there at its genesis.

Above: "Habitants" painting by Canadian artist Cornelius Krieghoff, circa 1852; courtesy Library and Archives Canada via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. We like to people watch too and speculate who they are and what their profession was:)

    1. People watching can be developed into quite a fine skill, can't it?! Guessing one's profession would be an interesting approach. I'm not sure I'd be any good at that one, though. I go more for the fine details...

  2. Sherlock Holmes would be proud of the observant (few!)

    I'm afraid that with the 6 to 9 billion humans on the planet - I haven't the time to hear most of the stories!


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