Monday, November 24, 2014

What I learned from one year's family postcards

More than half a century ago my mother wrote dozens of postcards to her mother, who lived an hour away. The families also visited two or three times a month. At this time there were five children under nine years old in the house. Reading them over is fun, sometimes a bit spooky, and it made me think about using family resources because in this case I can remember some of that year.

Yes, these are original sources containing primary information (from an eyewitness). Reading cards from a later year completely overturned a well-established family story. Another family story about when I gave up a nickname is kiboshed by one of these cards. Memory is changeable. So one lesson from these postcards is that we need to write down verbal accounts ASAP. Over time, what we remember of that verbal account will change in ways that the written one will not.

So in some contexts these family records are pretty authoritative. But as usual, the more we know (and reflect on) how these records were created, the better we can evaluate them. First of all, they can contain mistakes. In some ways like diaries, they leave out things, sometimes the very things we would most like to know. Because these happen to fall within my memory, I can see some warning signs as to how we use them. In general, they may not be good sources of negative evidence. If they never mention X, that may not be very strong evidence that X was not the case or did not happen.

For instance:

(1) Some difficult or embarrassing or upsetting things. I had to change schools that year (2nd grade), which was a big deal. I threw at least one major fit. It's not in the postcards.

(2) Current events that Mom and her mom had surely discussed during their visits. Our move across town took place that spring, but it is only alluded to in a couple of places; a casual reader might even miss the clues.

(3) Background information that everybody knew and took for granted. Sometimes these facts are alluded to: on one day the big news was that the baby had a tooth and that Mom was caught up on her ironing. ("Grandma, what's an iron?") Everybody who lived in town walked to school -- including my father to his teaching job; he would sometimes add a quick P.S. to a card or letter at the post office on his way. Some background is not mentioned at all: diapers were made of cloth and were regularly washed and hung out to dry and reused; coal was delivered by truck and shoveled into the "coal room" in the basement where it was later shoveled into the furnace.

I think I will read the previous generation's letters more carefully after this experience. What lies between the lines and beyond the lines? These precious records deserve our best attention even when there is no brick wall in sight.

Harold Henderson, "What I learned from one year's family postcards," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 November 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Marian B. Wood said...

Harold, You are so lucky to have an entire year's worth of postcards! My family has about 2 dozen from 100 years ago, which were really helpful in helping me trace one family's movements and also showing me who was staying in touch with which people. Happy Thanksgiving.