No More Favorites! Plus a New Writing Challenge
It is asked constantly in Genealogy circles: Who is your favorite ancestor? What us your favorite heirloom? What is your favorite story about…? Everytime I hear the word “favorite” I cringe. I immediately react negatively even though I may like all other parts of the question. Even a slight change to the question such as ” Tell me about one of your favorite [fill in blank]? Perhaps I am unusual, but I don’t have just one favorite of any category you might choose. I have many. And I feel choosing is a slight to the rest. I have favorites, but never “a” favorite.
Let me put this another way. Tell me who is your favorite child, sibling, grandparent? Perhaps these are easy questions for you? Not for me. How would I choose when I only knew two of my four grandparents and of that couple, she suffered from dementia so I only knew the shell of who she once was. So do I pick my grandfather by default? That seems a disservice to them all. Maybe this is just a personal flaw. I don’t have a favorite color either. I do have the color that was “assigned” to me but it was never “my favorite.” (It was yellow by the way). I like yellow because it is the color of sunshine, daffodils and happiness. What’s not to like? But it isn’t enough. Even with a complement of ochre, sand, lemon, gold, and buttercup, still not enough.
So it’s a simple request fellow genealogists. Stop asking about favorites. Change up the questions. Which ancestor would you like to meet? Which place an ancestor of yours lived would you like to live? Which ancestors’ stories upset you? Which photo beckons you to know more? Favorite is arguably a lazy word. And it’s a word that, for me, forces unnatural choices. If you must ask these sorts of questions ask “do you have a favorite color?” Not the one that forces a choice and does not invite one into a more thoughtful answer.
Which gets me to the second point which is how you frame questions makes all the difference in what the response will be. Let’s look at the subtle differences between questions.
- What is your favorite color vs. what color reminds you of something that happened to you?
- Who was your favorite teacher vs. Which teacher most embarrassed you? Tell us about a teacher that inspired you? Tell the audience about a teacher you would credit with changing your life in some way.
- What is your favorite heirloom vs tell us the story of an object you inherited? What heirloom would you like to know more about? Or better yet tell a story through the object. Where did it come from? Who made it? Where did it travel? How did you come to have it? What does it mean to you?
The key is to ask open ended questions that invite complex answers. The same is true when we write about the past. What can you do, to make your ancestors real? Is your tree, like your questions, flat and uninteresting? Look carefully.
I have one great grandmother who was married at 14! And a great-great-great grandfather who married at 38. How do those details shift the story? What was going on in their lives that influenced those choices. Was she pregnant? [No] Was he a confined batchelor? [Maybe] Even in the absence of diaries, letters etc there is lots to be gleaned from placing your ancestors in context. In my search for Catherine just reading the weekly papers gave me a much better idea about the world she lived in. [Not just the ones she was mentioned in.]
Personally I would rather you spend your time telling the stories of your ancestors rather than putting another 1,000 people in your tree. And here’s a take away when you dig deep, you add ancestors. Even though I finished my piece on my Woman Warrior Catherine I have already discovered a few more names and another loss. Her first born son John A Murphy went to California with his step uncles and died of heart disease in his 50’s. Remember she lived to be 92! Another child who predeceased her.
It’s better to tell a few stories well. Another often asked question what would you do differently if you were to start your genealogy all over again? I would write more stories. I would ask more probing questions and I would write down the answers. Like my post Write It Down, anything that survives is better than nothing.
So here is another writing idea. I have not done this myself but the idea intrigues me. Pick a real or imagined heirloom of an ancestor and tell its story and what it can reveal about your ancestor. It can be anything from an article of clothing to a tool or simply an object: Something of beauty or something of terror. Just pick something and let the object guide your story. Here are some possibilities to prime the pump:
- a bible
- a letter
- a watch
- a walking stick
- a pair of shoes or boots
- a piece of jewelry
- a scarf
- a pair of knitting needles
- a fishing reel
- a camera
- a book
- a fountain pen
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