Friday, April 16, 2010

Family Secrets Deserve Sensitivity and Respect

A recent article on Telegraph.co.uk, "Genealogy can open 'Pandora's box' of family secrets," looks at possible effect on the present generation of uncovering family secrets. Uncovering new information about our ancestors is inevitable, some may be secrets or painful to learn. In some cases, the issue of what to do with the information may present problems. The key is sensitivity and a respect for the feelings of others. We are not compelled to share secrets just because we know them, and it's important to the whole family that we protect and preserve living relationships, something the article suggests may be at risk in unraveling the family history. Also important is that we understand that our ancestors were living in a different time and age -- we may not want to judge too harshly until we better understand the context.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity of interviewing both of my grandmothers. Throughout her story, it was clear my maternal grandmother held hard feelings toward her father for his stern ways, but revered her mother (and rightfully so). The children had to work in the field "from the time they could sit up, almost." And he had strategies for getting the most out of them. It would be easy for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren to dismiss this ancestor as a brute and really have no sentiments toward him whatsoever; they might even go so far as to assign his perceived negative traits to other family members: "You are just like Grandpa So-and-so."  However, as much as I love my grandmother and appreciate her experiences as a child -- and life WAS hard -- I find that even as she is expressing her resentments, you can see in what she describes that her father was a provider who took care of his family, and he was a shrewd businessman. They had so much more and were so much better situated than other tenant families of their time, that if you read between the lines, you can identify and appreciate his better qualities. Although stern and forceful, I see him as a man of his times. I do not excuse his behavior toward his children nor his general indifference toward his wife, but I can appreciate the life he provided and the strengths demonstrated and give him a place of balanced respect in our family's history. I believe if my grandmother were alive today and I could share with her what I have learned of her times, even she would cut him a little slack. 

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