Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where to stow your Ancestor's Baggage....

What to do with your Ancestors' 'Baggage'
When she passed away, a maternal great aunt, born in 1910, left me three old suitcases as well as a large, beautifully carved wooden trunk. Inside, each, was an Aladdin's cave of wonderful trinkets, clothes, vintage hats, hand embroidered table cloths and table napkins. 

My great Aunt wearing her Wedding Dress.

As I removed each beautifully handcrafted item, I discovered my aunt's wedding dress. From photographs, I knew, this was the wedding dress she had sewn and worn for her second wedding, to Major Alexander Wallace Johnston. The gown is made of gold lace and silk and I simply couldn't resist trying the fabulous dress on ( and it fitted perfectly). My daughters joined me in a colourful journey into the past as we discovered hats, ball gowns, long embroidered gloves, fob watches and costume jewelery. I am certain that each individual item from the trunk and the two suitcases, has a story of its own, however, I can only imagine the tales many of these items could tell if they could talk.

As for the gold wedding dress, I happen to know that it speaks of not only love, but also of betrayal and heartbreak. My great aunt's first husband and the great love of her life, left her for a younger woman with whom he already had two children( the result of an affair). Although her second marriage was a happy one, my aunt, as she lay dying at the age of 91, revealed to me that she had never stopped loving her first husband. She felt the need to confess something to me,that she felt guilty about, before she died. So, my great aunt, nearing the end of her life, told me the following story.

When her husband left her, William Holme Cameron was a man of considerable means. As it turned out, to my great aunt's joy, her spouse had trustingly placed all of his assets in his wife's name( no doubt to avoid taxes). After his act of betrayal and his subsequent desertion, 'Jock' as William was known, returned home to my great aunt to discuss the transfer of his great wealth back to his self, with a generous offer to make some provision for her. My great aunt, both heartbroken and angry, at the time, had closed the door on her ex husband refusing to discuss anything with him. She was unforgiving and kept her husband's wealth for herself, all except for one thing. A cake shop! (Jock, had owned amongst much property, a chain of cake shops). And one cake shop was his reward for cheating on his wife.

My great aunt looked at me sadly,and said with obviously sincere regret, 'I have never told this to anyone but I should have given poor Jock more. I gave him nothing. I feel terrible about that and I have carried this guilt around with me for more than forty years.' Relieved, my great aunt, leaned back against her pillows, silent for a moment. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, she sat up and exclaimed vehemently, 'No! I'm glad he got nothing. That rotten man didn't deserve a thing!' Well at least that was off her chest! And with that, I had inherited a confession. My great aunts contrition, be it ever so fleeting was entrusted to me. This dying elderly lady, the sister of my grandmother, had handed me with her 40 year old secret. I am therefore, the keeper of my aunt's story, and as such, I have the responsibility of deciding what to do with it.

As the keeper of this secret told to me on a relative's deathbed, I have decided to reveal my great aunt's confession. After all, it makes a good story and I have weighed up the consequences. There is no one alive that this tale will offend and deathbed confessions, I have discovered, can be and often are, very interesting. Regret, guilt, even crime as well as a gamut of other acts and emotions, are the ingredients of confessions from the deathbed. Delving into the lives of ancestors is a journey filled with surprises, but, not all surprises will be pleasant. Family baggage, I call it. Most of our ancestors had some. These are the deeds and stories which our forebears, in all probability, did not want known. They contain secrets that we, as family historians, become the keepers of. Keepers of secrets or tellers. That is our dilemma as family historians. What do we do with the 'family baggage'?
There is some quite fascinating ancestral baggage on the branches of my family tree. In my sometimes murky family background, dwells a wealth of family secrets, lies, confessions and wrongdoings, which, with all good intention, as the family sleuth, I investigate and unravel, until I discover the truth. With each discovery I must decide whether my 'find' is for publishing or not.

There are occasions when I have to wrestle with my conscience, because no matter how interesting the truth is, I need to be aware of any pain it might cause other family members. A recently new found cousin revealed to me that my great grandfather was not, as I had been told, killed by a falling tree branch, whilst walking home from work. According to my cousin's alternate tale of his untimely death, he was involved in a punch up with two drunken sons, one of whom was my grandfather. In the heat of the fight, my great grandfather was knocked to the ground and the story about the branch was told at the hospital to avoid trouble with the law. If this story is the truth, and the branch never fell on my great grandfather's head, then my grandfather and great uncle could have been charged with manslaughter. In all truth I must admit that I preferred 'death by falling branch' as a fitting end to my great grandfather's life, however, I am a fact seeker and so, must deal with the unpleasantness that often partners it. And now, at least I can overcome my fear of standing beneath trees!

As a family historian, I am always searching for the truth, however, sometimes, what is true is not something we wish to hear. When I discover something of a disturbing nature, which might offend or hurt someone living, the choice is simple. The truth sometimes needs to be left hidden. Occasionally, the family historian is required to keep the family secrets. Sometimes we must stow the ancestral baggage where it will be safely secreted away.

I am a story teller but I must choose wisely which family stories to tell. So,I can quite happily reveal that my husband's step great great grandmother Bessie Marchbank White, apologised upon her deathbed (true) for heartlessly placing her husband's two young children by his first wife into foster care. Her contrition came far to late, however, the story still circulates amongst family members, as though it helps mend her actions. I am able to reveal that my great uncle Rex was suspected of being a spy during World War 2 in England. He had no offspring to offend with this story and his only living brother, aged in his nineties is able to laugh at the tale.

Walking into the lives of our ancestors is much like walking into an old dusty attic that hasn't been disturbed for many years. You will find old familiar things you have seen or have heard about. You might possibly be in for some surprises. You might unearth old secrets which have been kept locked away for hundreds of years so before you open the rusty old door to the family attic, be prepared to have to make some tough decisions. Not everything you discover will be pleasant and not everyone in your family is going to want the baggage that you might find in the attic placed on display.


  1. What a fabulous post! You gave us a lot to think about.

    And - someday you MUST post a photo of yourself in your aunt's gorgeous wedding dress!

  2. I agree. Terrific post. I am fairly new to this so I will definitely remember this post as I come across family secrets.

  3. THANK for this awesome post. I have abuse, alcoholism, and family feuds in my history. I want the stories recorded so that my children can learn the heartache that comes from these three sources. Yet I struggle with sharing things for fear others will be hurt or offended.

    My search for genealogy has healed a long time family feud. Yet, I must tread lightly. I enjoyed your post which validated this opinion.

  4. All so well espressed! Imagine the secrets I' ve uncovered in scores of century -old letters, 250 WWII letters, and years of faithful family diary entries. It will be a book one day. Thanks for giving us so much to ponder. Linda at www.familyarchaeologist.com

  5. Thank you for a wonderfully reflective and insightful post. I agree that as family historians we can be torn between the truths we learn and the impact on living people. It's a serious ethical consideration which most of us have to grapple with in the course of our research, and one which is not often mentioned.

  6. Great post! Thanks. (And I wish I could have a look into the suitcases you inherited. They sound so very inviting.)