Feuds and creating fantasy families with genealogy

Posted on: August 13th, 2010 by pj
What made you embark on a genealogical journey.  Was it a love of history?  Maybe the hope of finding a famous ancestor? Is it because you need to know ‘who you think you are?’  Do you view it as a ‘collecting’ hobby like stamps, gathering all that data to safely store away for future generations, or are there more complex reasons?
For me it certainly wasn’t a love of history, not initially anyway.  Over the years, as I’ve learnt about the lives of my forebears, I’ve gained an appreciation of social history if only to put their stories into some kind of context, but it wasn’t my primary interest.  Nor am I collector of dates or famous people.  I realised early on that if we go back far enough most of us will be able to find someone ‘of note’ that we are related to, just by virtue of simple maths.  As our ancestors double with every generation so, for example, going back only sixteen generations we each have 65,535 ancestors so the chances of someone amongst them being famous or royal are pretty good.
 One of the attractions of genealogy, for me, is the research-cum-detective work involved in tracking down ancestors; deciphering the clues that make up our genealogical heritage.  However I’ve also become aware that genealogy may be a safe way of making a connection with family, creating bonds that although, by their very nature, have to be one sided are also guaranteed never to be severed.  Maybe its having that degree of control and the concept of creating ‘images of family’ via genealogy that is seductive. 
My own family has a history of feuds.  On reflection that’s not the right word because feuding summons up images of activity such as medieval battles, fist fights at weddings or at the very least some strongly worded emails, and that’s not exactly what I mean.  It would probably be more accurate to say that our family has a history of passively excluding family members that they disapprove of by swiftly severing all contact.  I’m not sure if this is a common feature with all families or if our family is particularly deficient  in the skills needed to mediate and compromise and rather than showing forgiveness, empathy or understanding they choose instead to exclude.
  I’ve evidence of this happening in at least four generations, sometimes disputes over wills (always a favourite feuding area) and other times it appears that disagreements or slights, either real or imagined, have caused family members to suddenly cease all contact with each other, sometimes for decades at a time. 
I recently discovered a family story about two sisters.  As young women in their early twenties the younger girl believed that her older sister had taken money from her coat pocket; wages after a  pea picking session.   She never spoke to her sister again, even when younger family members attempted to make peace and even when, 40 years later, the older sister lay dying there was no turning away from the pea picking money incident.  I’ve no idea whether the older sister actually stole the money, or if she even knew that this was reason she was being ostracised.  Whatever the circumstances it would be seem to be taking stubbornness to a dysfunctional level to hold a grudge for that amount of time, sacrificing many family relationships along the way.
Generally, it appears we also tend not to learn from these episodes and the young people that look on with horror at their older relatives distancing themselves both physically and emotionally from other family members often go on to perpetrate the same behaviour themselves years later, apparently with no memory of their previous dismay.
The ‘only on my terms’ love displayed by the stereotypical Victorian father in the ‘Never darken my door again…’ scenario where the errant daughter is thrown out of home after becoming pregnant may not exist in the same way in the twenty first century.  However, we only have to look at social networking websites where modern ‘punishments’ are meted out in the form of ‘friendship request denials’ and isolation if a family member transgresses whatever is judged to be the familial code of the day. 
So is it possible that genealogy can become like the comforting but imaginary friend of childhood, almost a substitute family made up of dependable Victorian characters created from ten percent data and ninety percent imagination?  A virtual family, based in fact?
When I think of the ancestors I’ve unearthed in my own family tree I realise I have endowed even the obvious villains with a sprinkling of (imagined!) redeeming characteristics and taken as a group they could all fit quite happily into an episode of Larkrise to Candleford!

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