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Funhouse Mirror Memories

By Daniel Hubbard | March 2, 2014

Nearly all genealogy begins with memories—your memories, your cousins memories, your great aunt Gertrude’s memories. Someone’s family recollections peak someone else’s interest. Grandma gets interviewed. A notebook is filled with Uncle Ralph’s stories about his relatives when he was growing up and then when word gets out that you’re working on the family history, an envelope will arrive with forty-year-old, handwritten notes made by the mother of a distant cousin about what she knew.

You gather up everything from crystal clear memories to bizarre family lore and set about the task of corroborating it. You try to match the names in the memories to the names on an official page. Sometimes those memories will lead directly to records made decades and decades ago. Sometimes nothing will be found and little bits and possible falsehoods can be left out to see if they might have been the problem.

Often trying to match those memories to documented reality will guide us to frustration and nothingness. Then a funny thing happens. A record turns up, then another and another but nothing makes sense. Then comes the “Ah-ha.” What is appearing isn’t what was recollected. In ways it isn’t even close but yet it is recognizably what those remembrances were all about. Comparing the two is like looking into a funhouse mirror. Yes, that is you in the mirror and yet you’re not 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide with arms six feet long.

So often a family story is half-forgotten and distorted by the time it reaches the next person who realizes that it is worth committing to memory. Distorted as it is, that story and others like it are where family history begins. Keep the things that don’t help you find records in mind. They might just help you recognize what you do find. Also, remember to enjoy that look in the mirror. It is a funhouse mirror after all.

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