Can You Forgive Your Ancestors?

June 16, 2011

My mother, Virginia Easley Allen, in 1966.

After writing about a black sheep ancestor, I got to thinking about truth and how much of it we really want to know. I know we all look forward to finding an ancestor who’s famous or was involved in a historic event. But this week I started to ask myself if I’m just as willing to find the ancestors that were bad or bigoted or broken. Am I researching my family for just the nice stories or for the truth? Am I willing to look at the truth when I find it even when it’s ugly?

Take my maternal grandfather, Moses Easley, for example. I remember him, but he died when I was 6 so I never really knew him well. But from my mother, I know he was a bigot. He didn’t like Catholics or Jews or anyone with darker skin than his. When I write my family’s story, am I going to acknowledge that fact? Or will I choose to neglect to mention it, thereby insuring that particular piece of who he was will eventually be lost to history? Should that part belong with the few memories I have of him — picking strawberries with him in his garden, eating honey from his beehives, the pungent smell of the cigar he was always smoking?

It’s funny how much things can change in just one generation. His daughter, my mother, was teaching her children, even before the civil rights movement, that all people should be respected and that the color of their skin didn’t figure into it at all. People were people. In fact, if she heard the term “colored person” used in her presence, she was known to respond, “What color were they?” She was fearless.

So when the neighborhood I grew up in began to change, and my school with it, my conservative Republican parents made the decision to stand on their principles. When their white neighbors were fleeing to the suburbs, my parents not only stayed but stayed involved. My father was on the school board, and my mom was president of the band boosters, among other things. By the time I graduated from high school, the white kids were in the minority. Now, I’m not going to pretend that was always easy. But I got a living lesson in personal integrity from my parents, a good education, and a very unique high school experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

So that’s a nice story about my mom, one I want to pass on to her descendants. But it’s when you know about her father’s prejudices that you realize just how remarkable she was. Her light shines brighter because of his shadow. If we hide the ugliness, we inevitably lose some of the beauty as well.

When we’re children, we think our parents are perfect. By adolescence, we’ve discovered their “feet of clay.” I’ve always told my kids they will never be truly “grown up” until they are able to forgive their parents (uh … that would be me) for their mistakes and limitations and love them for who they are, warts and all. Maybe we should apply that lesson not just to our parents but to their parents and their parents’ parents. Because in reality, human beings are a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, beauty and ugliness. It’s the goodness we want to hang onto, but we need to hang onto the truth as well. Because it really does set us free.


Related resources:

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Nancy Shively of Skiatook, OK. Read all her posts at Family Tree University.


20 thoughts on “Can You Forgive Your Ancestors?

  1. What a grace-filled essay! Beautiful! Yesterday on my memoir-writing blog I encouraged people to write about their fathers, recognizing no one is perfect, and reflect on what they learned about extending forgiveness and grace and how their father’s influence, good and bad, made them who they are today. I’d love to refer my blog followers to your post because it captures exactly what I was hoping they’d do with similar situations in their family tree. Thank you so much for this delightful read!


  2. A wise woman at a genealogy conference recently advised me, on this very topic, “We’re not responsible for our ancestors, we just collect them.”

  3. Nice, nice essay, Nancy. I am not really into genealogy, but my father is, and through him I do know that several in my family history are of the “not so pretty” sort. This is an eloquent reminder of how we have all — through time, education, and well, just growing up — become stronger. But such strength came in part because of our “warty” ancestors, and hopefully our children’s children will be even stronger, because of OUR “warts.”

    Thanks for a really nice essay.

  4. How beautifully explained – I am sending a link to this article to a friend who was just talking to me about documenting her memories of her grandparents – some better than others. I love the light and shadow metaphor!

  5. Thank you for your insight on taking the bad with the good as we research our ancestors. I decided a long time ago I had to adopt that philosophy AND if I write about my ancestors I have to include the bad as well as the good for, as you imply, that is what makes us who we are today. I discovered several years ago that my great grandfather was charged with and found guilty of manslaughter and served 3 years in prison at which time he was pardoned. The person he killed by a blow to the head apparently bore the same last name as my ggrandfather but was not his wife. I have not been able to prove it, but it may have been his mother.
    Imagine my surprise, then, to find just last year a report in a 1903 newspaper that my grandfather (grandson of the man discussed above) was charged with murdering his own child. It’s a long story, but the end result was he raised his 10 children who were left motherless after the flu epidemic around 1918! Obviously he didn’t go to prison for a child’s death which was accidental and not due to any action on his part. In fact, the entire episode was caused by two men in the town (one a dr., the other a merchant) who had a grudge against my grandfather and chose the unfortunate accidental death of a child to try to get their revenge.
    Isn’t it amazing what you can find out as your research!

  6. I never knew my father. He disappeared shortly after I was born, leaving my mother to support herself, her widowed mother, and me. That is exactly what I have written in the family history about him. However, I have also written how that affected my mother, her courage in facing the situation in which she found herself, the positives and negatives of life as a single mother in a small town/rural setting in the middle of the Great Depression, how her married women friends surrounded her with love and care, etc. So perhaps in a way I have commented on him indirectly, but otherwise, my descendants can draw their own conclusions about him.

  7. Nancy
    Thanks for sharing. I personally like to know the good and the bad. We need to consider our ancestors were a product of their time. Not making excuses for your grandfather, but if he were born a generation later he may have behaved differently, clearly your mom had a different view on life. I also find the further removed we are from a situation the easier it is to accept. My Great Grandfather deserted his family, this was very difficult for my grandmother, but I do not have the same emotional response as it did not impact me personally, and society has changed. A divorce in 1920’s was viewed completely different then it is now.

    Recently I had a client, and I found something not terrible, but it wasn’t news he was expecting (that his ancestor was essentially a pauper). He immediately lost interest in that line. He had in his mind that he was descended from a prominent family, when in reality he was not. Maybe once he gets over his shock he will be interested again, perhaps not. Either way it is his choice. So what you include about your family is what is important to you.

  8. Thank you so much for your lovely explanation and essay. As a mother of 4 now-adult children, I know how challenging it can be to be principled “no matter what” is happening around you in your neighbourhood, town, country. Cheers, Celia

  9. So am I to assume you will print about your grandparent? My in-laws were the same way. Maybe I should include that. I was and am like your mother and most of my friends called me stupid and said I should just be quiet. I used to ask the same “What color are they?” question and sometimes got booed.

  10. Personally, I’ve found my ancestors whose lives were less than savory were far more interesting and human than those who appeared to be saints — and I seriously doubt that they were all that saintly anyhow!

  11. I love getting to know my ancestors. Some are easily categorized as heroes, others need careful handling, but they are all real people to me. I find something in all of them that I would like to find in myself.

    You ave expressed this beautifully.

  12. Excellent article, and I’m glad you decided the honest approach was the best way to present family history. I have no really bad characters in my tree although there are some likeable rogues who I’m sure in their day would have has some taking issue with them. In my case, excluding there deeds from my write up takes a lot of the color away from the family story and also acts to deny a learning point for future generations to NOT emulate. We all have the choice to rebel or follow examples held to us as children. In your case evidence of bigotry to me just says this person didnt have enough information to judge or get to know those he disliked. Thats not shameful – it’s more his loss, but we all tread our own path ultimately and how dull a family history would read if we were all just clones of our forebearers.

  13. I am the black sheep of my family. I am 56 years old, I had been married 25 years when I came out as a lesbian, divorced my husband, and started a relationship with my now wife. My family did not take it well. My mother passed away in 1981, my father is still alive, I have one brother. Piece by piece he removed or threw away every momento in our childhood home. I have written to my aunts that are still alive and asked for any copies they have of pictures of my grandmother or my great-grandparents, that was a few years back, and I still haven’t heard from them.

    No matter what do not turn your back on a relative for any reason.

  14. History never happens in a vaccuum. While we look at racism as reprehensible now, it was not only commonplace, but normal at one time. We can learn from the past, but we can’t change it.
    I have an ancestor who ran a house of prostitution in 1880 (the “occupation” list said he was a “saloon keeper”, but the three women living in the house were listed as “prostitute.”) This has been a source of amusement rather than shame in the family.

  15. Nancy,
    First, let me compliment you on your beautiful writing! Your post was clear and touching. I could feel every emotion, and felt “right there” through each segment. :)

    I am one who would like to find out the bad with the good about my ancestors. Actually, I’d just like to find ANYTHING! My folks seem to be so elusive – if I didn’t have proof of their existence via vital records and the census, I’d not even know that most of them existed!

    I believe that by uncovering the lives of our ancestors, we discover the origins of patterns in our families, thus giving us the opportunity to either celebrate, or iniate CHANGE. Although each researcher should have the option to decide what, and how much they publish, publicly, I think that all findings should be shared with family members, and left behind in written form for future generations.

    That’s just my two cents!


  16. My mother’s father was not a nice man. He was cruel to my grandmother and all his children.They never forgave him for his awful deeds. I have included him in the family tree because he was the father, but when I tell about my ancestors I will be truthful about him. Oddly, my grandmother loved him and stayed with him until she died. She did something right, because they all grew into amazing people that she could have been very proud of, in spite of him. I have a hard time forgiving him!

  17. I loved your article. My situation is just a little different. The stories I have found about my ancestors have simply been interesting tidbits (prostitutes, mental hospital patients, drunkards, to name a few). I felt no ill will towards any of them. My 76-year-old mother, however, has requested that I “quit looking” because the family may not want that information shared! I personally love that it is so easy to find information on the internet. These things took place in the 1800s!! I will continue looking but realize that I need to handle my discussions with kid gloves. Any advice?

  18. Sunny McClellan Morton wrote about this in “Skeletons in the Closet” in the November 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine:

    Just because you’ve come to terms with ancestral gossip doesn’t mean your relatives will welcome its return.

    Ed Hill gave his father’s cousin the full story about her great-great-grandfather Samuel Hill’s alleged character, murderous act and shameful end. She listened carefully and said, “Ed, I think you’ve researched just a little too much.”

    Before broadcasting a particularly juicy tale in a book, Nancy Ellen Carlberg, longtime genealogist and author, suggests, “think about what effect your story will have. Ask the people involved privately before you put something in print.” It’s customary not to publish any genealogical information about living people, but you also might want to get the blessing of the descendants of people involved in a scandal.

    So gather your family’s buried stories with glee, but share them in a way that won’t hurt your loved ones. The main point to remember, concludes Carlberg, is “family history shouldn’t hurt. The main purpose of genealogy is to bring families together, and to enjoy finding out about your ancestors, whether they were good or bad.”

  19. Nancy, Your article was excellent. I hear so many folks say they are afraid to look into there families for just those kind of things. But our ancestors were just people like us having to face difficult and good times. How they dealt with them is often a reflection on the times they lived in. In the future people will look at our actions in much the same way. Families are not perfect, not theirs not ours. Writing about the more difficult one is tricky but I thinks those stories still need to be told,we still can learn from them, so maybe that is their legacy

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