Family History: Learning to Separate Fact from Fiction
By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
Is this year proving to be one of the answers or a year of questions? This provocative query found on social media can stimulate older women to think deeply about our lives. Questioning my own understanding of my family history led me on an interesting journey that turned false family narratives into a truer and richer understanding.
Family and societal stories easily embed themselves in our daily narrative and inform behavior. These stories often are decades old and can span generations. If these stories are fictional and left unquestioned, they can cause unnecessary misunderstanding and misery.
But what if we could unravel these plot twists and see them for what they are? What if we become curious and ask different questions to reveal new insights? Can we release our grip on these emotional plotlines and give ourselves a new view of our lives?
Delving into Family History
Guided by my inner bloodhound, I have become more alert to the fictional stories I tell myself. For example, in 2014 I began debunking the biggest dose of fiction that had been told to me: my family history. My mother always could tell me about my maternal lineage, which tracks back to the 1600s. However, my paternal family tree abruptly stops with my great grandparents; neither my father nor uncle could explain this dead end.
Frustratingly, I didn’t have key documents such as birth certificates for either paternal grandparent. I had to rely on keeping my eyes, ears, and heart open as I researched and had conversations with my father and his brother, Uncle Bob.
The first break in my investigation came during a conversation with Uncle Bob. His childhood memories opened family discussions that led to the discovery that my paternal grandmother was an immigrant. Ancestry.com confirmed that her early childhood was spent in Russia before traveling with her mother and sisters to New York City.
Determining my grandfather’s background took longer. The second break came when an official military letter dating back to the 1920s and my grandfather’s response revealed and confirmed a change in our paternal family’s last name. My grandfather, who was Jewish, states in his response that the family’s decision to adopt an Anglican surname was due to anti-Semitism.
Still, I faced a new challenge because my paternal grandfather did not show up in Ancestry’s searches, even when using the newly discovered last name. Both my father and uncle said that their father had been born in Connecticut, but nothing confirmed this.
Stumped, I formed a different hypothesis: What if my grandfather’s first name had also changed? Approaching the research from this angle led to revelations. I searched using only the newly identified paternal last name and no first name. Sure enough, U.S. Census records popped up that matched the family’s composition and ages; however, my grandfather’s given first name (as well as that of his brother) differed from how we knew them. (Interestingly, my great-uncle took the name “Jac” in later life, which is an abbreviated version of the original family surname.) I also learned that like my paternal grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s family emigrated from Russia when he was a boy.
These findings turned my sense of self upside down. While one of my childhood stories – that my grandfather was a very successful businessman – remained true, other stories were left in shambles.
This research helped explain why my father could never tell me much about his family’s past. In a sense, one-half of my family history had been meticulously rewritten. In its place, a new story – one based on fiction – was created.
Some might think I’d be bitter or angry to learn these revelations. However, that’s far from how I feel. I am thankful for the newfound clarity and have a better understanding of their lives.
For example, these findings shed new light on my grandparents’ lives and behaviors. I began to understand why my grandfather was nicknamed “The Chief.” Now I realize that his stern and driven demeanor may be attributed to his immigrant journey and hard-scrabble early life trying to navigate New York City as a boy, teen, and young man. After more research on Ancestry.com, I also realized that part of his disposition may have been influenced by culture since his early days were spent in a part of Russia that was steeped in a very stoic Germanic culture.
I also had a better understanding of my grandmother’s control issues and critical nature. She grew up in an area of Russia threatened by the pogroms. I began to put myself in her shoes, imagining being a young girl who may have heard or even seen brutality in her community. Could she have experienced some form of post-traumatic stress disorder that caused her to emotionally shut down? Then I contemplated immigrating to bustling New York City right before the turn of the 20th century. I can’t imagine the culture shock, which would have been multiplied by the fact that her father soon left the family to seek fortune in Africa’s gem industry.
These findings also gave me a better understanding of the immigrant’s journey. It’s easy to sit in the comfort of my home and judge those who are leaving—and in some cases—fleeing their country. But now realizing that my father and uncle were both first-generation Americans, I have a deeper appreciation for the trials, challenges, and possibilities that come from immigrating.
Writing a New Chapter
Learning that the closely held family stories we’ve grown up with differ from reality can throw us off-kilter. Yet by being brave enough to ask different questions and then following up with research, we can experience a complete paradigm shift in understanding our family’s background and dynamics.
For me, these findings have led to emotional healing. As a child, I had a fraught relationship with my paternal grandmother, but now I have a better understanding of her life. In the same vein, I barely knew “The Chief” since he died when I was a young girl. These explorations of our family lineage make me feel closer to him.
So where do I go from here? This story continues to evolve, but I do see a path emerging. Firstly, I realize that I have a duty to author my own chapter in our family story. I am fortunate that some of my paternal family’s characteristics – an ability to adapt, a strong work ethic, a drive to succeed – can remain as part of the story.
Yet these discoveries also reinforce my determination to avoid creating a fictional life. Instead, I want to focus on authenticity and individuality. To do so requires me to identify and work through conditioned familial traits (such as my paternal family’s tendency to be overly critical), so I don’t repeat these patterns in my own life.
I hope you, too, will join me in evaluating your life. Where are you creating an experience that may be based on false information? Where can you ask insightful questions to gain answers that lead to groundbreaking truths? Will this be a year of honest answers for you?