Tuesday night’s Who Do You Think You Are? with Christina Applegate was surely one of the saddest episodes I’ve seen. Her father had scant memories about his mother, and the ones he shared on the program were not happy ones. Now that he has some facts concerning his childhood perhaps he’ll remember more. We won’t know how the information he received and any resultant memories will affect him, but I think we, as genealogists and “history detectives”, should be aware of the results our actions may cause.
Of course there are always those people who don’t want to hear that one of their ancestors was imprisoned or spent time in a mental hospital. Sometimes, however, our probing can trigger other, more troublesome, memories. There are times the questioning should stop; so the information can be digested, or perhaps halted altogether. Sometimes people need to deal with the memories before they can go on. We need to recognize this situation and respect those boundaries.
I interviewed a large family who had a traumatic event in their childhood. While talking to them, individually and in groups, my questions, and their resulting conversations, brought up childhood memories long forgotten. Questions like “where did you attend second grade?” or “did you decorate a Christmas tree?” elicited responses that multiplied as the conversation continued. They laughed and shared many happy memories.
But there was a dark side to the interviews. As those wonderful memories came back from happier times, so did the unhappy ones concerning the traumatic event and its aftermath. Those childhood memories triggered emotions long buried. Each person dealt with them in a different way. Some of them fully acknowledged that they had forgotten several of their young years, and were happy relive them. For some the flood of memories was welcome, even though some of the memories were sad. For others it created a more complex reaction that took some time to resolve. Tears, sadness, sleep problems, all a result of the questions I asked.
For the most part the family was happy to recreate the happier moments of their childhood that they had buried. Hours of happy conversation was recorded, lots of memories saved for future generations. Wonderful details of personalities and ways of life. But, there were some memories they didn’t especially want to resurrect, and some doors that remain closed; there are times we need to accept that.
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