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Writing on Her Journal

Oh, Those Family Secrets!

Previous blog posts emphasize the value of starting the search for your family history and ancestry by interviewing family members. It seems like a simple enough task until you meet resistance or bump up against family secrets that grandma believes are best-left secret. And make no mistake, there are always family secrets. Some are more mysterious than others. Some have the potential to cause immeasurable pain and family division; others can result in surprise delight.

No matter what you find, be careful how you use the information you learn and do not underestimate the capacity of guileless research to expose a truth some family members were unaware of previously.

During a routine search of decades-old public records of my father’s family, my sister discovered a woman, not my grandmother, listed as my grandfather’s wife. That was news to us. Anyone in our family who might have known about this other woman is long gone. The trail seems to have stopped with this entry, but who was she? Was my grandmother aware of her existence? Were there children from this union? Do we have unknown first cousins somewhere?

As you start your search, be prepared to learn more than just the family tree. Numerous topics fall under the category of secrets that some family members may not want to be exposed.

• Paternity

• Illness

• Criminal records

• Education

• taboo relationships

These are just a few issues that may give you pause in your research. The key to searching for family information is to be prepared for surprises and be willing not to judge. Ultimately you must decide what to pass on and what to keep secret.

  • Family Taboos

A woman learned at a funeral that the man she always knew as her uncle, had once been her aunt. In death, he was laid out in a dress and wig at the insistence of his mother who never accepted her daughter’s male sexual orientation. Religion, cultural mores and the accepted practices of other times are often breeding grounds for family secrets, but sooner or later, secrets may be revealed because of their weight. My mother-in-law found her birth mother when she was in her sixties. No living person in the woman’s family knew she had had a baby more than sixty years previously. The domino effect of the revelation is a story for another time.

  • Open Secrets Are Not Always Open

Sometimes you think everyone knows a secret, but they don’t. A young man was adopted. Many members of his family were aware he was adopted and assumed he knew as well because it was discussed openly in the family. He didn’t know and learning the truth from a casual comment by a family member devastated him. His relationship with his adoptive mother and the rest of the family was never the same.

  • Expect Embellishments

Don’t be surprised to learn that a family member who has claimed education achievements, career accomplishments or life experiences has enhanced their resume a bit. Family stories about illustrious ancestors frequently evolve over time. Approach your research with fidelity and be prepared to discover that old uncle so and so was not the town sheriff, he just spent a lot of time at the local jail.

  • Know When to Back Away

Ask yourself what the value is of revealing a secret. If you are doing research for the family tree or a similar project and you discover a scandalous secret, make sure there is a purpose to including it in your work. If it adds little to the overall objective of the project, let it be. Respect and compassion trump the need to tell.

In The Time Travels of Annie Sesstry, Annie is on a journey to learn more about her ancestors and perhaps discover the identity of the unknown ancestor who was brought to American from Africa against his or her will and was ultimately responsible for the genesis of the McElmurry-Calhoun clan. Annie and her family must accept the idea that some information may never be known, but it is quite a ride as she and her cousins look for clues and Annie attempts to tell her family story.

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