Are Genealogists Meant To Lack Answers?

I love meeting fellow genealogists.  But when I meet fellow genealogists and they discover how young I am, something like “You are so lucky to have started genealogy so young while you have your grandparents and the older generation to ask questions”.  I rarely tell respond by telling people that actually, my grandparents were for the most part unavailable to me.  My maternal grandparents died before I was born or shortly afterwards, my paternal grandmother had dementia for as long as I can remember, and I only had a short few weeks to really get to know my paternal grandfather because he lived across the country.  So in reality – I wasn’t able to ask many questions.

But I often wonder what would have been if my grandparents had survived (and had a sound mind) during my childhood.  My childhood experiences would undoubtedly be different.  But would I have asked all the questions that I have now?  Even if my grandparents had decided to tell me stories of their lives, would I have paid attention?  Would I remember the stories with accuracy?  Would they even be willing to tell me anything?

I truly believe that I would still have most of the questions that I have today.  Why?  Because even at 13 when I gained interest in genealogy I was not thinking about asking such questions.  I did ask the basics of the who, what, when, and where – but I didn’t get the details that give life to these basic facts.  I did not gain any knowledge about who my ancestors were as people.

Maybe all genealogists are meant to share the common regret of “I should have asked more questions”.   Perhaps genealogists are meant to always have more questions.  The “chase” of hunting down the answers to questions is what makes genealogy so much fun.  So maybe the absence of answers is a positive thing.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment to this post, comment on Facebook or Twitter, or in your own blog post (be sure to leave a link to the post in the comments section of this blog!)

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20 Responses to Are Genealogists Meant To Lack Answers?

  1. Elyse

    This is a very common dilemma not just for genealogists – the “coulda shoulda woulda” syndrome. On the final episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Spike Lee, he was dismayed by the fact that as a film maker why he never did an interview with his grandmother? She was the one who suggested the character name Mars for She’s Gotta Have It and it turns out Mars was one of his ancestors.

    I truly believe we get interested in genealogy and family history when we do for a reason. It is a coming together of the forces and it is when our ancestors call. There is purpose in it. I know at 13, if I asked some of the questions I wanted to, not only would I have had my face slapped (for realz, you just didn’t ask about some of this stuff), but I am sure I would have been stonewalled on the responses.
    .-= Thomas MacEntee´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  2. Nice article.

    When I was about 11, I had a family tree school assignment which was soon followed by interviewing my three living grandparents. I gathered names, dates, and places. They volunteered a bit more, but I didn’t write down everything and I didn’t think to record them. When I got back to genealogy as an adult, I still had the data that I had written down from that time.

    So even though I did get an early start with three grandparents, I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t record them, didn’t ask the right questions, and didn’t write down every word they spoke. (I know my grandmother told me an uncle changed the name. She didn’t know which person that uncle was, but I’m certain she told me the name. Frustrating not to remember or have written it down!)

    Still, it was a good start and a lot more information than my parents could have ever provided. It’s a good thing some of my grandparents’ siblings were still around and I got to talk to them. Have you looked up your great-uncles and great-aunts?

    • Banai –

      I have asked many of my great aunts and uncles questions. I have been fortunate enough to get a lot of answers and good stories from them, but there are certainly questions that they were unable to answer for one reason or the other. I’ve been lucky enough to find many people who were either friends of the family or neighbors who were able to fill in more gaps.

      But since I am the baby of my generation and my mom had me at 30, I was unable to have a relationship with many family members because by the time I came around they were either already gone, their memories were gone, they were sick so I wasn’t allowed to visit often, or I just didn’t have the idea to ask the questions or write down what I heard.

      I did an interview in the 7th grade with my grandpa to discuss his service in the Korean War. The only things I wrote down were the answers that I needed to turn in my paper. It was one of the few times that I had a heart-felt conversation with my grandpa but I didn’t listen to the “extra” stories that he told. I no longer have that paper and for the life of me I can’t remember most of what he told me. I always wonder what “would have been” if only I had written everything down.

      • You may not have gotten very close to your great-aunts and uncles, but don’t forget about their descendents. They may know some of the older stories, but they’re also going to create new ones. Someday, your stories and theirs will be what someone regrets not asking about when they were 10 (if someone doesn’t write them down, that is). I keep in touch now with cousins in my own generation that I didn’t know existed 15 years ago. My immediate family was kind of splintered from the extended family, partly by geography, but being the family genealogist put me in a position to get back into their lives. Geography still keeps us apart, but technology certainly shortens that distance.

  3. I started doing genealogy when I was 21, but like you, most of my relatives were already gone. The very few who were still alive were not only not willing to answer questions, but were not at all happy that I was interested in this.

    In fact, I think the internet (and other cultural influences) have significantly changed people’s perception of privacy. Things that we don’t consider private now definitely were back in the day. People didn’t talk about divorces, or babies born five months after the wedding, or Uncle Joe who had a male “roommate” for 25 years. You wouldn’t have gotten answers on that stuff anyway.

    Now, we don’t attach so much shame to those things…which is a good thing. Our children and grandchildren won’t have such a hard time finding out who their relatives really were. Uncle Joe doesn’t have to hide anymore (well, in some states, anyway).

  4. I only had real access to my grandparents until I was 10 years old. At that time I never gave a thought to family history that I can recall. So I have the same “if only” thoughts as so many others have.
    I recall my mother telling me that her grandmother’s brothers and sisters got together every year. She said they would sit in the living room sharing stories BUT the children were never allowed in the room. Wow, what information they might have absorbed if they could have listened!

  5. I started genealogy in my early 20’s. At that point, my only surviving grandparent was may paternal grandmother. My maternal grandparents died while I was young, and my paternal grandfather died when I was 16. By the time I became involved in my genealogy, my surviving grandmother had developed dementia, so I was never able to ask her any questions. She passed away last year.

    I wish I would have been able to ask the questions, but perhaps you are right, and we genealogists are supposed to have these questions. They are what makes genealogy so exciting!

  6. In one sense, I’m lucky in that my maternal grandparents were into genealogy themselves and had already done a good deal of the heavy lifting (back before the interwebs when it was REALLY heavy) by the time the baton was handed to my mother and me.

    My paternal grandfather, on the other hand, died when my father was a child so not only did I not know him, HIS kids didn’t even get to know him.

    Even now, that I know better, I seem to treat my living relatives differently than the dead ones. Somehow I pay much more attention to the dead ones. It’s like the game starts when there’s a death certificate.

    My father-in-law (approaching 80) tells the most amazing family stories and have we ever recorded them? Shamefully, no. I’ll have to rectify that ASAP. Thanks for the reminder.
    .-= Scott Jangro´s last blog ..Getting into the Mayflower Society =-.

    • You said it perfectly – for some reason, how we view our family members who have passed on is different than how we treat our living relatives.

  7. Yes, Elyse, I think you are right that no matter how many questions are answered by a living relative, the genealogist will always have another quest for some other story or piece of information. I guess a reward of asking any living person those questions is the closer relationship that results from that conversation. I’m sure you have experienced this with the aunts and uncles and other friends of the family that you did have the chance to interview. Your post was another excellent one that made us all think again about how we go about our family research. Thanks.
    .-= Nancy Hurley´s last blog ..A Surprising Day of Perseverance and Stamina =-.

  8. Pingback: Meant to be mysterious? « The Ancestral Archaeologist

  9. Thank you for expressing this so well. I sometimes fall into the trap of fantasizing about the woulda-couldas. I started to write a comment about it but decided to do a blog post instead: http://bit.ly/apnPlm
    .-= Liz´s last blog ..Meant to be mysterious? =-.

  10. Excellent point to ponder.

    I am fortunate to have a set of grandparents I can still call. My grandpa is not a talker and my grandma knows next to nothing about her family. She never knew her mom and didn’t want to bother her dad with questions. Needless to say, it’s been challenging to get information from them.

    Also, I find that the siblings don’t always keep in touch, are mad at each other, or won’t talk about the past.

    Thanks for bringing up the issue. It’s been fun to think about the philosophical points.
    .-= Amy Coffin´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Sleeping Angel Edition =-.

  11. Pingback: Reflections on Grandma :: Genealogy Geek

  12. I think the lesson in this is get information and stories from the people that are still alive and alert (parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) and record your own information. Then those coming behind you will have that available to them.
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Confederate Military Service Records from the National Archives =-.

  13. Perhaps we only get interested in our family history BECAUSE our grandparents are no longer around to give us the answers. I started my research when I was given the results of my Uncle’s research, much of which came from my grandparents on both sides of my family and I thought there were more questions in it than answers. Had my grandparents been alive I could have asked them to fill in the gaps and I would probably have left it at that. Because I had to find out for myself I got more involved and I learned a lot more. And of course I am still going!

    Thank you for showing me that regrets about not asking my grandparents questions when they were alive are useless!
    .-= Carole Riley´s last blog ..French Genealogy anyone? =-.

  14. Elyse, I started my genealogy at about the same age as you (well, maybe I was about fourteen or so) and I get that same response from everyone. However, my grandmother lived in California, and I lived in Massachusetts. My father didn’t even know his grandparents surnames. Most of my great aunts and uncles told me the wrong information ( i. e. Uncle Bill Ebenezer ended up being Ebenezer Bill- Bill as a surname!). Anyways, Everyone has regrets, and misinformed relatives. What I had at that age was enthusiasm! I used to ride my bike to a nearby city to research at an archive that had never granted permission to anyone under 18 until I asked. That enthusiasm of youth has kept me going for over 30 years!

  15. Elyse,
    I too became very interested in my own genealogy at the age of 13. this was done because I never knew my grandparents on my paternal side and mine on my maternal side were gone by the age of 8, so the memories are scattered. I made my own charts when I didn’t even know that there were pedigree charts out there. What is amazing is that although I never knew them I have dragged my mother to see or talk to every possible relative or far fetched connection or neighbor or school chum that has ever existed to make up for that. I have squeezed every nugget in any corner I can. If one of my parents or my siblings pointed to someone at a ballgame, I would walk over and ask questions, and still do today. What matters is your enthusiasm for the craft and your gifts to yourself and others.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Saturday Night Fun- My Maternal Line =-.

  16. I think i was 18 when I started. I was meant to be doing my A Level studies, but found genealogy more interesting. I’m 32 now and I am still met with surprise when I turn up at genealogy events/meetings or reveal my age to people who contact me via my website etc.

    I just got hooked – it doesn’t matter how old you are.

    I was lucky to have known all four of my maternal great grandparents enough to remember them.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday =-.

  17. Genealogists and detectives share the same goal: Search for the correct information.

    Yet detectives can do something that genealogists only have limited access to: interviewing/chatting to people

    Detectives can interview witnesses and search the ‘scene’ to find the information they want, and they know where to look

    Genealogists can only interview available ancestors (which can be extremely limited), and a genealogists ‘scene’ can be anywhere in the world!

    Roz

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