by Delia

I’ve had this experience several times, both while working with a customer here at The Genealogy Center, and while looking up information as a favor to a “friend of a friend.” In the personal realm, my friends know that I have an interest in genealogy and that I know how to find information. On occasion, one of my friends has had a friend with a mystery in his or her family tree. It might be a grandmother who left her husband and children. Perhaps there’s a father who deserted the family. Maybe it’s an uncle about whom no one ever talks. It could be almost anyone, and it might be at any time in the past. The situation usually has gone that my friend introduces me to the other person and I hear the mystery and am set upon the trail.

Most of the time, the tale is at least vaguely sad – a family torn apart, or a light-lipped mystery can eat at a person until he or she just has to know the truth. I can be saddened by these stories, but for me they are usually just a mystery to be solved. For me the question is, “Can I figure out a way to find out what happened?” I may discuss the issue with my friend’s friend, suggesting several ways to dig into the story. Sometimes they have to do it because as much as I might want to, I can’t afford to request and pay for documents for anyone but my own family. But sometimes, such as when I am working with a customer in The Genealogy Center, I have access to books and online documents that will solve the mystery. I may discover the runaway actually lived right in the next county until death and, although his family never acknowledged him, they almost certainly knew where he was all the time. I might stumble across a bigamist salesman with a wife and family at either end of his route. I might discover a military deserter or an illegitimate child raised by her grandparents as the sister of her birth mother.

I am pragmatic about the stories in my own family. Yes, it was sad that my grandmother’s parents died and that she and her siblings were parceled out to friends and relations in various states. But if my grandmother had not been adopted by childless friends in another state, she might never have met and married my grandfather. Then where would I be? I consider that the wife left by her husband was able, through grit and determination, to make sure her children were educated and had a good start in life. The illegitimate child raised by grandparents grew up within a loving family with a doting “aunt.” The deserter lived to father children.

However, to those not already steeped in genealogy and history and accustomed to finding these “blemishes,” such findings may be disturbing. A couple of times, my friends’ friends have called a halt mid-search, deciding that they really don’t want to know. I respect that, but I try to remind them that the mistakes of our ancestors, and the injustices they faced, are in the past. Yes, ripples may still be in our ponds, but do not have to drown us with sorrow. Anyone who wishes to delve into his or her family roots needs to realize that there may be mud there. Be careful of what you ask for – you might find something different than you wanted to know!