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The Stories at the End

By Daniel Hubbard | June 12, 2011

I have been giving quite a few talks of late—three in seven days in fact. One was “Quantum Mechanics for 5th Graders,” which my wife and I did for our daughter’s class at school. The kids were excited and asked a lot of good questions and had a lot of good answers as well. It wasn’t easy to present something as odd and complex as quantum physics for 11-year-olds. On the other hand perhaps it is the best time, before their concepts of the way things are become locked into how the world seems to work, to let them know how weird the universe can be if you look at it closely enough. The other two talks were introductions to genealogy, once at a museum and once at a senior center. Even learning genealogy can be helped by a little bit of that grade-school-acceptance of the unexpected.

All the the audiences were quite different and at the senior center, there was no way to show slides so I had to be a little extra vivid with my presenting to make the whole thing come properly alive. Yet, in the end it is the audience that really makes things come alive. The kids got excited about some images of wave interference, the patterns made by overlapping combs, some demonstrations of probability, pictures of physics experiments and, of course, Schrödinger’s cat. At the genealogy talks, a few things I said caused bursts of note taking. I wish I had some way to keep track of what those things were. Maybe next time I will make some mental notes of my own. There were also many interesting questions and helpful points made.

The Best Was Last

What made the biggest impression on me though, were the questions at the end. They weren’t just questions. They were stories in search of endings, in search of answers. One quest for a grandfather who disappeared about ninety years ago. His family abandoned. His name is not even known. How could he be found? One audience member told me a complex story of an African-American soldier sent to the Philippines during WWI, a filipina woman and how hard it had been to get her family’s status as an American acknowledged. She told me about letter after letter to the army and the Red Cross. She told me about her brother who had done further research and when he died, no one knew what he had done with his papers. She was part African-American, part East Asian, part Spanish. She had a great story. There were other stories. Stories of immigration and illegitimate births to unknown parents. A grandmother who, it turns out, was not related biologically at all. Still “grandma” but with a different story than the ordinary.

Sometimes we preserve stories still remembered. Sometimes we repair stories half-forgotten and decayed. Sometimes we reconstruct stories that disappeared from memory long ago but that can still be pieced together from records, chronicles, photographs and gravestones. Stories like the ones from those audiences bring genealogy to life.

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Topics: Genealogy, Memory | No Comments »

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