Relatively speaking – proceed with caution

I have dabbled with our family tree for a few years now, using a website with seemingly magical search engines, tempting you with little waving green leaves, to suggest possible links and events to identify long past relatives. I very quickly became wary of these little leaves, and added nothing as a certainty, unless verified by my own family knowledge or irrefutable supporting documentation.

One of the issues of course is that one “John Smith ” can present much the same as twenty other “John Smith” entries from the same area and at the same time. When you go back only as far as the 1800’s it is quite usual for the same christian name or even a combination of christian names, to be used several times in the same family. It is therefore very easy to attach a record to the wrong one, and go off at a completely inappropriate tangent.

There are also however some situations which may present as completely improbable, but are actually spot on ! In my own family a grandparent of mine had a male sibling born in 1905 with a death recorded for him in the same year. But wait, another birth appears in 1908, same location, same parents, baptised in the same church and same christian name. This sibling lives a long life, with an emigration to Australia and his death there in his old age. My grandmother actually visited him in her eightieth year in Australia. So were the birth and death records in 1905 wrong ? he could not have been born twice. He of course was not, but his parents had named him in 1908 with the same name used for their son who was born and died in 1905.

Again, in the same family, but a generation later, there are two brothers, who are uncles of mine, who married one each of twin sisters, who lived in the same street as them. Now to many more remote relatives, this would look extremely unlikely, and would be dismissed as a false lead.

Despite my cautious approach to these records, a bit of a mystery has emerged in relation to my own great grandmother. Now I recall visiting her as a small child, with my mother, I remember her home and exactly where it was. She is of course on my tree, but her little green waving leaf puts her death at a time when I was 20 years old. For some time I have rejected this as not true! I would have had an ongoing relationship with her! I had assumed that she had died when I was small and my memories of her being in my life stopped. I ordered a death certificate sure that it would place her in a different family. You can guess what happened next, this absolutely is my great-grandmother; her death was registered by her daughter (sibling of my grandfather) who I also remember well, and her address was exactly where I remember her living.

This leaves me with more questions than answers of course. I put out feelers to other members of the family, in the hope that they could fill in the blanks, nothing doing, no memories stirred or facts forthcoming. So we have a completed family line with a question mark for me, but it only troubles me because she was directly involved in my early life. To anyone in the family that did not know her, she is just another name from times going by, to which they are connected.

The downside of using this method to compile a family history is of course the lack of context and back stories. You can confirm names, dates and places; you can marvel at marriages and lives long lived, and feel sadness at young deaths and misfortunes. The workhouse and war records being particularly poignant. You cannot however bring back the emotions and events, good or bad, that lead to the family bonds and fractures that are inevitable.

I have now decided that I must expand on this collection of facts, with real written memories of the people in our tree, to give an understanding to our children, and their children, of the family that I, and their father for his side, grew up with.

We must remember in this digital age of cloud storage and instant photographs and films, that a name hanging on a tree or contained in the title of a file is not enough. The when, where and why are so important to bring a family history to life.

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