My mother told me of an occasion when various members of her family had received identical letters from a woman who claimed that a man with the family name was her biological father and that she wished to contact him. The person being sought was no closer than a third cousin, but it had not seemed to occur to the woman who had written the letter that there might be a very extensive extended family in an area and that a shared surname might suggest nothing more than a common ancestor in a previous century.
Disbelieving the claim of the letter, my mother was still apprehensive about her next encounter with the man’s wife, what would she think of such a story? It was the sort of tale that could cause lasting damage.
Shortly afterwards, the man’s wife called with my mother, in very good humour. Laughing, she asked my mother if she had received one of the letters. My mother admitted she had, and wondered what the joke was.
Smiling, the man’s wife said, “He’s medically unable to have children, that’s why we never had any.”
The story was a fabrication. The letter writer was not aware of the medical facts though and her scatter gun circulation of false claims might easily have caused permanent damage to the man’s marriage and to how he was regarded in the community.
Researching family history, there seems to have been much messiness in former times, but less of a propensity to share details with the wider community, and certainly no inclination to write to a wide readership making claims about someone.
My paternal great grandmother, from whom comes my surname, had three children, possibly by different fathers, and died unmarried at the age of twenty-three. Trying to discover my roots after a century of silence is a challenge.
Perhaps my great grandmother’s generation would have regarded the sort of truth I have been seeking as unnecessary, perhaps they would have said that life was about living with the facts as they are and not asking questions about how those facts came to be. Messiness was something to be swept under the carpet, not something to be explored. There must have been many times when I was young that I was told that we did not wash our dirty linen in public.
Yet there is a sense that the story of my great grandmother is part of who I am, and that a hundred a nine years after she died, there is no harm that can be caused to anyone by trying to understand the messiness she faced.