Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Not-So-Golden Age

If you were doing genealogical research, and discovered that your great-great-grandfather died of complications from untreated syphillis, how widely would you disseminate that information? To me, it's something juicy, something to entice my otherwise bored relatives to actually pay attention to all the awesome stuff I'm finding out.

(I have another blog that is mostly just for family, of genealogy. I once encouraged my family to read it. "Can we comment?" Suellen asked. "Of course!" I said. ("Finally, someone's interested!" I thought.) "Can we make jokes in the comments?" she asked. "Sure!" I said. ("That'll get other people interested in commenting, too!" I thought.) "Good," she said. "Because the only comments I'd leave on your genealogy blog would be jokes making fun of you for having a genealogy blog.")

I worry, though, whether some of my relatives would be offended or saddened by this information. I have no qualms about sending out my transcriptions of the death certificate, and if they're interested in knowing how he died, they can google the causes themselves. I won't hide the truth.

But I know I wouldn't be thrilled if information came to light that indicated that perhaps my great-grandfathers were not the fine, upstanding gentlemen I've been told about. Might my dad feel the same way if I call attention to the fact that one of his great-grandfathers died of syphillis? (Although, I think all he knows about this great-grandfather is the story of the time he drowned some kittens. His opinion might not be that high to start with. Drowning kittens is relatively horrifying when taken out of the context of the time period.)

And what about my great-uncles? (Great uncles are the only relatives who are ever interested in what you find in your genealogical research. It's a fact.) This is their grandfather I'm talking about. I'd be disappointed, disenchanted if similar evidence were revealed about one of my great-grandfathers. I could imagine being devastated if it were about one of my grandfathers.

And yet, is idealizing the past doing anyone any good? I'm sure my grandfathers, just like my great-grandfathers, just like my great-great-grandfathers, made poor decisions and did stupid things when they were young. I know my dad did. I know my mom did. I know my sisters have. I know I did, and still do.

Our ancestors were human. But should we broadcast that fact?

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