13 February 2014

Finding romance in genealogy

Do you know your parents’ or grandparents’ love story? How they met and where and when? Did they ever take you on side trips to show you the memorable places and events in their lives, such as where they went on a first date, where they became engaged, where they were married, where they first lived as newlyweds?

To me, it’s a mystery how my parents met, since my father was a few years older and they attended high schools in different towns. Although I don’t know the stories, I have snapshots and memorabilia from those early days, lovingly placed in a scrapbook my mother made. The Broadway playbills, the cocktail napkins from jazz clubs, the movie tickets, even a bar of soap from their honeymoon hotel—all of these cherished items create almost a timeline of their first years together. Flipping through the pages gives me a totally romantic, even glamorous vision of their lives, before children came into the picture.

Maybe you don’t have a scrapbook that tells the story. But if you cannot ask the actual couple—or the people who knew them—look for other sources. Maybe you’ll find a stack of Valentine’s Day, holiday, anniversary, or birthday cards wrapped in a ribbon. Or, better yet, old letters. John Adams (1735-1826) and his wife Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818) wrote more than a thousand letters to each other. You can read them on the Massachusetts Historical Society web site. Even if you’re not related to the president’s family, you can glean much about family life, politics, history, and amour of the times.

If you or your relatives don’t possess the actual pages, you can look for letters, day books, journals, diaries, postcards, photographs, ephemera—even oral histories—at libraries, historical societies, museums, private collections, and even eBay.

Sometimes, romantic or familial thoughts come when envelopes and stationary are not available. One of my collateral great greats wrote a short family history in his old account book, the text of which appeared in the History of the Town of New Marlborough, Massachusetts by Harry D. Sisson (1937). Apparently, in 1859 his aunt was visiting from Michigan and Noah Gibson wanted to scribble her stories somewhere handy before he forgot. Unfortunately, Aunt Alice gave a romantic twist to the family history, turning my 6th great grandfather into an immigrant sea captain (two things he was not) and his son into a minuteman tragically dying at the Battle of Lexington (he died a few years earlier, in 1757 to be exact).

Don’t overlook the possibility that someone published something your ancestors wrote. For instance, when Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) wrote in his diaries, he had no idea people would be reading them hundreds of years later. His writings say much about his love for his family and the little details that made up their everyday life. As a widower, he even shared in his diary his attempts to woo a lady—and her eventual rejection.

People don’t have to be famous to be published either. Soldiers from Massachusetts who fought in the Civil War often had their letters to parents, siblings, sweethearts, and wives published in the local newspaper, The Quincy Patriot. Numerous soldier letters have been printed or are available online.

Speaking of newspapers, you may find a treasure trove of love stories, from golden anniversary articles, mentions in the local gossip column, and obituaries to letters, poetry, and stories. And if you descend from high school or college sweethearts, look for yearbooks and alumni publications.