We spend a great deal of time in genealogy, assembling a paper trail denoting the dates in which our ancestors were born, got married, and died. Perhaps you can call those BMD details our stock in trade. But think about that for a moment. Think about what you did yesterday, or last week, or on your last memorable vacation or achievement. If those are the matters which make life worth living, why aren't we pursuing those stories in our ancestors' lives?
I've been in Florida this week, which means having an opportunity to visit with relatives I haven't seen in quite some time. Earlier this week, that opportunity included sitting down to lunch with my eldest paternal cousin, my link to a previous generation of people whom, despite being my grandparents and their generation, I have never met—not even as a baby. This cousin, about to turn ninety years of age himself, has been my link to the details of their lives, my eyes into the recent past of my family history.
I've always had questions about my paternal grandparents. That grandfather, you may remember, was such an enigma. Spending most of his life being tight-lipped about his origin—or claiming simply that he was Irish, if anyone pressed the issue—my grandfather turned out to have a family history originating in a separate ethnicity (Pomeranian) from the north of Poland.
I've often wondered how someone could pull off a ruse like that. My grandfather had to have come to the United States at a very early age in order to avoid any telltale foreign accent, but where those passenger records might have been, I still can't tell. At least one document claimed he was born in Brooklyn, a believable lie, considering he spent his entire life in New York City.
Lunch with my cousin last week came with much conversation about just what that grandfather was like. But I assure you: the details never mentioned dates of birth, marriage, or death, or any other dry recitation of the facts of his life. My cousin's face came alive when he recounted memories of his grandfather juggling for the kids—or in front of any audience. He talked about our grandfather's best friend Leo, who was a professional wrestler, and how they liked to hang out at the beach.
One of the things that always puzzled me about my grandfather was how he seemed to slip through the cracks, slide through life without being noticed—at least by authority figures who would have demanded he behave differently if they learned of his Polish roots during a war era in which he would otherwise have been required to register as an enemy alien. I had always characterized him as a chameleon, able to blend in with his surroundings so as to never call attention to himself.
That sort of image, I found out this week, paints a very different picture than what the man was in real life. Since my cousin knew our grandfather personally, I asked him that question point blank. Was he really a chameleon?
"Oh, no," was his immediate response. The man was gregarious, fun-loving, ready for a good game of poker with the gang. Not exactly the type to cultivate a low profile.
As he let the recollections unfold before his eyes, my cousin almost seemed to be narrating what he saw in his own memories. On my part, I gained a clearer picture of just what my grandfather was like as a person—his day-to-day life, his likes and dislikes, his personality.
Once we ascertain the BMD details of an ancestor's life, all we have gained is the license to say we are sure we know who we are talking about. But what are we really saying about that person? We've identified the right person. Beyond that, we may have absolutely no idea what that person was like, just that we are talking about the right individual.
It is priceless to be able to step beyond that inaugural point, to learn who that person really was in real life. After all, those stories reveal what each ancestor was like, his or her preferences and dislikes, the character quirks and foibles. Considering that, thanks to the DNA we share with those ancestors, some of those tendencies are actually passed down to us genetically, through this examination of ancestral stories, we can connect the dots from the personality traits we know we have to the specific ancestor from whom we gained that tendency.
When I reassemble my schedule from the last week, thinking of all the conversations and interchanges I've experienced in just that short time period, I can see all the life infused in those events. When I don't have such an accounting for my ancestors, that is precisely what I am missing from the story of their lives. Sure, finding an ancestor's diary—or even photographs—gives us a first step to enter into reconstructing the story of their lives. Beyond that—or in spite of not finding such treasures—all that is left to us as researchers is to infer what we can by reconstructing the details of their day-to-day life.
Of course, no one would demand such an effort for, say, an application to a lineage society, but for my own journey through my genealogical past, I'll opt for that conversation any day.