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Docents for Descendants

By Daniel Hubbard | September 18, 2011

Tour Guide at Paul Revere's Grave. Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Our ancestors are more than people. They are slices of times and places that we would know little or nothing about without them and we shouldn’t remain ignorant of those times and places despite them. They are our tour guides. We receive private showings of times and places that most people only vaguely realize exist. Sometimes though, we reach the tourist attraction and skip the tour. We connect the dots but don’t notice the points of interest along the way. As genealogists we are apt to find that quite a few of our ancestors guide fascinating tours so we should listen to what they have to say.

No one likes tour guides who don’t have enough to say. The tour group is curious but the guide simply doesn’t explain much. We all have ancestors like that. We want to understand what was happening but they only toss out a few stray records here and there. They move without leaving a record of land bought and sold. A day’s reading in a county history nets a single mention of an unfinished term as village fence inspector. Then they disappear from the census for twenty years. If we have this kind of ancestor and we are a little lucky, they will be like the tour guide that opens up if you manage to ask just the right question.

Other tour guides are just passive script-reciters. They may talk quite a bit but the delivery is obviously lacking—no drama, no excitement. You get the sense that they know little or nothing beyond what they have memorized. To really get something out of a tour guide like that you either need to know enough ahead of time to fill in the gaps or you have to remember your questions and try to research them after the tour is over. We certainly find ancestors like this. The records are there but never record anything out of the ordinary. The details are missing. I like to remind people who lament ancestors like this that their ordinary is often far from our ordinary. Interest can be found even in the ordinary if we take the time to understand it. We just need to remember to research those tangential questions that the tour guide does not answer for us. Sometimes, if we don’t understand the guide, we need to pick up a history book and take the self-guided tour before we try the guide’s tour again.

In this case the tour guide is in the group at back, not the person in the tomb. Photo by Basher Eyre

Of course there are also excellent tour guides. They get us to focus on just the right detail. Ask a question and they don’t just have an answer, they have an answer that goes beyond what you could possibly have imagined. Many years ago when my wife and I lived in France we went into a castle’s museum at the last minute. The man behind the desk said that the last tour of the tapestry had just started and we could join if we wanted. We thought we could give it a try. We were glad we did. We knew that this was no ordinary tapestry. One imagines a single Medieval or Renaissance scene. This was more like a graphic novel in weave. It went on for panel after panel. In principle it was a story from the Bible, the Apocalypse. But as our guide carefully explained each panel, it was clear that it was not really that at all. He explained the Biblical reference being made, pointed out the interesting details and then came the phrase “…mais ce n’est pas dans la Bible,” which translates to “…but that isn’t in the Bible.” It was in fact a melange of the Apocalypse and the Hundred Years War as seen through French eyes. What lies behind each scene was far more that what was apparent. What each panel seemed to depict was not the full story. He then carefully explained the historical reference that was hidden in the image. He was easily the best tour guide I’ve ever had.

We have ancestors like that too. What we first learn about them is just the tip of that proverbial iceberg. If we work at it, they are capable of taking us on an amazing tour. Each little bit of information gives a clue to something that is more than meets the eye, something that lies behind and a bit to the left of what is apparent. Each record leads us to another. Ideally, we don’t just find the official records that they left behind, we get recollections by them. We get recollections about them. We find pictures. If we find things that they kept, we don’t just get information about them. We get information about what they felt was worth preserving. We don’t just learn about them in the roll of an object of research but also as a filter of information. When they preserved things themselves we can wonder about the things that were left out. We can never be sure why some things were not included but perhaps it was because they were meant to be forgotten. Every bit we learn adds more to the whole than just itself. We learn about them. We learn about their little slices of time and space. We’ve found an excellent tour guide.

School has restarted and some tourist destinations have even closed for the year. Our ancestors conduct private tours year round, 24/7. That’s part of the privilege of being a family historian.

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