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The End of a Good Story

By Daniel Hubbard | October 2, 2011

Not long ago I finished a book for a client. The necessary research was completed. The boxes of memorabilia had been checked and double checked. The text was all written. The stories had been told. The photographs all laid out on their pages. I sent off the cover art and the main file for printing and binding. The other day the boxes arrived. After checking them over, I packed them back up, set them in my car and drove off.

Of course, it is wonderful to see the finished product and to hear nice things from the recipients. It is a marvelous feeling, but there is also a bit of sense of loss. Lives, or in this case a single life, that I had come to know had come to an end, a second end actually. The subject had passed away years ago.

Who doesn’t occasionally feel loss or regret after closing the cover on a good book that one final time or sitting in the dark while watching the credits roll? The mysteries have been solved or you have been left with the knowledge that certain questions may never be answered. The story is over.

I remember watching a documentary about the making of the Ken Burns film, The Civil War. They were nearing the end of production, sitting together mixing the sound. The curtain had gone up at Ford’s Theater. The actors were on the stage. Their recorded banter hung in the air, oblivious to what was about to happen. Then the sound was cut. They stopped mixing. They stopped everything before queuing up that next inevitable sound. They waited a few moments in silence as if they could somehow let Lincoln live for just a few moments more by not adding that gunshot to the mix. Then they bowed to the inevitable and let the shot be fired.

Family history is not usually like that. It is an open ended endeavor. There can always be another record that we haven’t found. There is always another relative of our ancestor that might provide a clue if researched. There is always the possibility of a stone that has been left unturned—something waiting right around the corner, just out of view, just out of reach. Normally, we don’t need to face the end. There is always the hope of one more generation here or more detail there. We’re elated at breaking down a brick wall partially from the feeling of accomplishment, but also out of the knowledge that new lines of research will open. The end of a brick wall isn’t so much an end as a beginning. So called brick walls would probably be better thought of as starting gates. Once the gates open we get to run again, like horses chomping at the bit.

Sometimes though, genealogy isn’t like that. When a book is printed, it is an accomplishment, a reason to be happy with a job well done. Once delivered, it is something that people will be glad to be able to pick up and read or simply examine the pictures. A process has come to an end but the creation itself has a long life ahead. The creation gets to go on reminding and inspiring. The stories will continue to be told.

I sometimes wonder how my aunt felt when she gave me her genealogy books and papers a few years back. On the one hand, I’d helped her organize them all and she was clearly overjoyed that someone who cared and who would care for them was taking them. On the other hand, her research process had come to an end. Her creation was in those boxes. It reminds me that family history isn’t just about the digging. It is about the creating. It is about the preserving. It is about the passing on.

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Topics: Creativity | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “The End of a Good Story”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    October 2nd, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I am so glad that our research is never totally “finished,” but I do hope that I’ll be in the physical and mental shape to be able to wait to the very end before I pass the fruits of my research on to someone else.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    October 9th, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Not only is research never finished. I don’t think we could possibly know if we were finished. How could we tell that there were no more records to find? If we could know that, how could we know that we had squeezed everything from each record? If we could know that, how could we know that there was nothing left to reason out of the different combinations of the data? How could we know that everything that there was to be proved or disproved about people who had the same names as our ancestors or lived in the same places (all those tangential people) had been finished and that there would be no more clues from those quarters? Nope, we’re never done. Now if only we could do something about the eventual problem of “physical and mental shape” we’d be in business.