Regular readers of this blog know one of my passions is genealogy. My latest adventure? Learning how to customize maps to show my ancestors’ travels across geography as well as time. Not everything I’ve learned about their migrations is happy news.
So I listened with interest to a recent presentation by the author of the just-published and much-anticipated memoir, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton, sponsored by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.
I don’t write memoir, but from friends who do, I know that figuring out how to tell these stories and how much to tell is a big part of the challenge. Newton had wrestled with her family’s difficult past for a long time, and she’s used both genealogy and DNA research to try to sort out fact from fiction. For example, did her paternal grandfather really marry thirteen times? (Newton has found records of 10 of his marriages to nine different women.) Did he really murder a neighbor with a hay hook? (Yes, but it was self-defense, after her grandfather came to the aid of the neighbor’s step-daughter whom the man was assaulting.) And did he die in a mental institution? (Yes, and Newton has put a gravestone on his formerly unmarked grave. It’s inscribed “Not Forgotten.”)
Her family, including her mother, were great Texas storytellers, and Newton had decided that, given everything else she knew about the family and the mental illnesses that plagued many of them across generations, many of her family stories seemed improbable but not unlikely. On her mother’s side, the family was very poor, yet in the early 1800s, they did own slaves. Even a Massachusetts ancestor, who in the 1600s was tried twice for being a witch and exonerated both times, may have owned a slave, slavery being not as unknown in New England as generally believed.
The details and corroboration of these and many other stories were a lot for family members to bring on board. Not only was the research difficult, the bigger challenge was for the family to come to the reconciliation Newton alludes to in the book’s title. Unfortunately, some family members’ approach to the past is to “sweep it under the rug.” That’s a loss in a much greater sense, because, as Newton says, “without each of the people who came before, who contributed to the genes that ultimately contributed to ours, we wouldn’t exist as we do now.”