Saturday, March 19, 2011

Take off those rose-colored glasses

My simple reminder posting about last night's NBC television broadcast of Who Do You Think You Are? inspired a brisk reaction. Anonymous posted this comment:
"I caught the depressing Rosie O'Donnell episode when it first aired several weeks ago. Quite a depressing episode and a dubious time investment is my take. Sorry if pointing out this stinker of an episode offends anyone, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em, Myrt."

Among the tasks we have as genealogists is to determine the facts of an ancestor's life from surviving documents of the time period. Then we must put that life in historical perspective to gain a better understanding of just who those ancestors were.

Sometimes it is hard to view our ancestors' lives without a prejudicial eye because we enjoy 21st century comforts, the likes of which our progenitors never could have dreamed.

Revealing Rosie's Irish ancestral roots, including the workhouse tour poignantly illustrate the harsh life that many of our Irish and English ancestors endured.

Unraveling the mystery of a grandfather who disappeared 70 years ago was a similarly tender experience for Kim Cattrell.

We cannot all have French royal roots like last season's Brooke Shields since, it takes a lot of commoners to pay for a monarch's lavish lifestyle.

Wish that I could wrap up my family history in a nice bow, complete with tales of stately mansions, castles and chivalrous knights, but for most folks like me, life wasn't like that for our progenitors.

So are ancestral tales of living a meager existence, high infant mortality rates, short life spans, wars and rumors of war, political unrest, crop failures, dust storms, plagues without benefit of antibiotics, earthquakes, volcanoes, pelting rains and flash floods, taxation without representation, fires in tenement buildings depressing? Yes they are. But one or more natural or man-made disasters surely affected our ancestors.

To this Mr. Myrt adds "Life was dirty, muddy, unhealthy, wet, dangerous, brutal and short. If you don't like that, don't study history -- family or otherwise."

Ol' Myrt here agrees with "Anonymous" that we must call 'em like we see 'em, but we must also take care to remove those rose-colored glasses first.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. Excellent post and commentary, Myrt.

    Last week, I was working in the Danish Demographic Database (information is in Danish) and used the Google translator to find out the position of one of the females in the household. The translation popped up: "Her Illegitimate Daughter."

    We have to take all information as it is and realize that is part of the fabric that weaves our lives today.

  2. Hear, hear! You're studying genealogy to find out how your ancestors lived. If you can only bear to find a fairytale existence, don't do genealogy! So true, Myrt and Mr. Myrt!
    -- A new follower

  3. Amen, amen, amen! Those "depressing" stories touch my heart, draw on my tender feelings and build my love, respect, and admiration for my ancestors. Take off the rose-colored glasses and see life in its real beauty, Mr. Anonymous!

  4. Watching the Kim Catrell episode of WDYTYA, I couldn't get past the fact that she accepted the fact of her grandfather's remarriage without checking birth dates or any other corroborating fact. Maybe this was done off camera, but it sure made me skeptical.

  5. Myrt, I disagree with you and your reader. It was not as negative as either of you make it. It is, in fact, "relative." What they considered hard trial versus comfort might differ greatly from what we consider hard trial versus comfort. But their feelings for what they considered hard trial and comfort are no different from how we feel about what we consider hard trial and comfort. I am NOT mitigating what our ancestors went through! I am simply saying it is a lot more complicated understanding how they felt about what they experienced than simply contemplating how we would feel in the same situation. It is almost impossible.

  6. Depressing, yes, but all the more valuable for it. Many of my ancestors lived in conditions of dreadful poverty, and not that long ago, either.

    Three of my four great-grandmothers applied for Poor Relief in Glasgow - some of the most detailed records you can imagine, so I know an awful lot about them. The fourth never did, but as a child had direct experience of it when her mother applied on at least two occasions.

    The more I find out about their lives, the more thankful I am that I am lucky to have the life that I do. I was the first person in my family to stay on beyond the minimum school leaving age, let alone go to university.

    I can't do anything to make things better for those generations who lived in poverty, who died young, or lost infant children to disease. But as a genealogist I can record them, and commemorate their lives.

  7. Great Post, our ancestors lived through a lot of what we would think is horrible today, but they did the best they could under trying times.

  8. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short it is. And there is definitely a lot more of that than there is royalty, wealth, and happy endings. If the "history" side of the genealogy/family history package is to mean anything, we have to deal honestly with the negatives. And I believe that if we are here to read and share those stories, sad as they often are, that's a type of happy ending in itself.

  9. Well put. At least some portion of enjoying genealogy is discovering what our ancestors had to deal with as a path to understanding how lucky we all are. Depressing though it might have been, the show provided some good insights in to Irish history.

  10. I am amazed anyone was offended or put off by that episode. I thought that they took extra care in presenting the facts... and indeed they were facts. I am confused how anyone thought this was wrong or in distaste.... but then again I am a black & white kind of gal! I think Rosie took from it what she needed... inspiration & survival... and that is all that truly matters :)

  11. Cute, Myrt. Thanks, I think, for featuring my comment as the fodder for today's blog. However, your assessment of my having "Rosie" colored glasses does not hold water in this instance.
    I am well versed, perhaps even, very well versed in the facts of life. Certainly the past was no bed of roses for the vast majority of our forebears...including our royal forebears. As you, and I believe most of your readers are aware, at least 2 billion of the earth's population have royalty in our lineages - whether one knows precisely yet where their lineage links to the kings and queens of Europe is another story. The factual concept of "most recent common ancestor" is proof of the above.
    My point was rather about the excitement level of the most recent WDYTYA episodes. Their focus on ancestral travel to places which were waypoints for their family's migration is fine, but the overall lack of depth, and lack of desire express to dig deeper into their roots, leads to my assessment of boring entertainment. My concern is that if WDYTYA is not spruced up with more depth that it will become a victim of low ratings. And that loss would be a sad outcome for a subject which is important, and needless to say, near and dear to all of us.

  12. P.S. We are all descended from pauper and princes. We all carry the dna that has survived great plagues and wars.

  13. Genealogy is nature, family history is nurture and we are a combination of both. Genealogy will tell us who, family history will tell us why and it is stories like Rosie's that will give us the whole picture, warts and all. My ancestors married, had children, laughed and enjoyed times, but they also suffered pestilence, buried babies and cried. It is their whole lives that shaped my family and in turn, me.

  14. Dear Myrtle, I agree with you. Having poor Irish and Italian farmers for my ancestors, I found Rosie's story very worthwhile. And I'm glad my little girl watched the episode with me. We need to know about the poverty of our past to appreciate what we have today.

    I'm brand new to blogging myself have pointed my readers to your post from my Jim's Girl Family History Blog (

    Thanks for all your tips over the years, Myrt!

  15. I've encountered many sad stories in researching my family - some that make me wonder out loud to myself, "How could they have borne it?" or "Why did s/he do THAT?"

    For me, what it comes down to is that the ancestors were just as we are...human beings, all muddling along and doing the best we can.

  16. One of the National Genealogical Society PRESIDENTS expressed "disgust" when her ancestor was a slaveowner. Now, what a stupid reaction. Slavery was morally wrong, yes, and many ministers decried the practice even then, but it was legal in many states, and her ancestor may not have been the Simon Legree character of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many slaveowners freed their slaves in their wills. Each life is not to be judged by 20th century standards. I fired off an email to her about that, she not surprisingly never responded.

  17. Excellent discussion of some very important topics. I enjoyed the Rosie episode because of the Irish flavor and it showed a couple of interesting things:
    Many Irish were forced to leave their native land or die there in the 1840s-1860s - it is important that we learn our history and geography while we research names and dates. There are several excellent books on Irish history - always take the opportunity to engage your mind!
    Many Irish went to Canada rather than the USA because it was cheaper, it did not have the slight immigration rules that were in force in the USA, and in some places (Newfoundland as an example) it was part of the British system.
    We are "who we are" because of who went before us. Rosie said it beautifully when she said it gave her a greater appreciation for what her family went through, what they overcame, and what they did to survive AND her put her own losses in perspective. Can we imagine today how bad things must have been that you would pack up your family and leave everything and everyone you knew to come to a strange land? We are not talking about travelers, adventurers, opportunists - we are talking about people who left families never to see them again, lost a way of life, perhaps lost a spouse or child on the trip over - these were tough times (and not at all unusual). We need to remember and appreciate their reality.
    Knowing their stories makes them "more human." Finding out that an ancestor had an illegitimate child (found in my Norwegian research) and wondering why she moved from where her family lived, why no further mention was made of her or her son, finding the father later married with another family, following all of them through the census records, church records, and immigration records, learning about the church and government practices at the time - all of this makes our individual histories come alive.
    I prefer to know the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the difficulties that our ancestors overcame - I have found each of the WDYTYA episodes uplifting and rewarding because each tells a part of our "big story."
    I think anyone who gives it a bit of thought "gets" that in a 42 minute show WDYTYA cannot get too far in depth - they need to highlight - no one said you can't go online or to your library and "learn more about it." Not everything needs to be spoon-fed to us. Consider WDYTYA a jumping off point.
    By way of example - on Rosie's show the "kind gentlemen" from the workhouse administration who put families up for emigration to Canada often were quite interested in getting the Irish off their land and off the assistance rolls and removing the native Irish from the country once and for all - through death or emigration. Immerse yourself in the history and geography of your ancestors - it is a fascinating read.