I began my research the way anyone else would in this day and age: on the internet. I found a free tree-making site, added all the names I could recall off the top of my head, and emailed all of my computer-literate relatives to ask what they could add. They filled in the great-uncles and second cousins and maiden names, but most also made clear that they really didn't know all that much about our family history. So, not having any idea what I was doing, I just began Googling the names of my great-grandparents. I was shocked at the amount of information I found, and equally disappointed by how little of it was sourced. I had no idea where any of this information had come from, and, therefore, no idea if it was true. And so, I set about emailing literally hundreds of people that had posted family trees online, or blogged about one of my ancestors.
Nothing. For weeks, I got no response. I continued doing my own research, digging through census records and reading books that were alleged to have an ancestor's name within, but all I was getting from them were names and dates. I wanted to know who these people were. What did they do for a living? What did they do for fun? Were they religious? Were they involved in politics? Were any of them artists, or musicians, or authors? Finally, answers began to come. First, I got an email from a distant cousin in England who told me a bit about my great-great grandfather's family. Then, a woman from Utah that had information about my great-grandfather. And they just kept coming. A lot of this information had been passed down through the family and wasn't documented, but it was a start - people were at least sharing their stories and photographs, giving me a little insight into what my ancestors were like. I excitedly added these tentative histories and pictures to my family tree, and after several months, had a respectable site of my own.
And that's when things got interesting. About a year in to my research, the tables had turned a little. I had hit a jackpot of photographs from both sides of my family, and stumbled upon a ton of information about a couple of lines. I had become the one getting the emails from others, looking for more information. Between the emails I was sending and the ones I was receiving, a picture began to emerge, and it became clear that each of us held only a corner of it. There were kids that most of us didn't know about, second families that had been kept secret, ancestors who seemed to vanish into thin air, and affairs that had been covered up. Each of us knew a part of the story, none of us knew the whole thing. When it comes to things like affairs and secret families, it's not much of a mystery why it was kept quiet, but some of these details were so mundane, one can't help but wonder why they were left out.
Just today I received an email about my great-great-grandfather, Clarence Layton. Finding information about him had proven difficult: he died the year before my mother was born, my grandmother has never been one to talk much about her family, and my great-grandmother spoke even less than that (and passed away long before I would have been interested). Pretty well everything I knew about Clarence had come from piecing together census records, attempting to pick his face out in photographs, and, eventually, one distant relative emailing me all she knew. I knew he lived in Taber most of his life. I knew he had married Minnie West, and had several children. I knew Minnie had died young, and that he remarried to a woman named Elva. But I've never been able to find out who he was. His job remained a mystery, all anyone knew about Minnie was that she had had a hard life, and all anyone knew about Elva was that she was his second wife. No one was sure what he was like as a person, whether he was funny or not, whether he was kind or stern. All he had ever been to me was Clarence Layton, born 1882, died 1954. And then, today, I opened an email from a woman in Utah, who was shocked when she found this site and read how little I knew about Clarence. His occupation was well-known; he'd been a well-loved janitor at Taber's Central School, even gaining the affectionate nickname "Pop Layton", for 43 years. He'd helped out as an orderly during the flu epidemic, and was well known in his community. Most surprising of all, however, was that he and Elva had two children of their own!
I'll probably never know why certain details are left out. Perhaps they've been forgotten or blurred by the years, perhaps they're assumed to be common knowledge, perhaps people have their own private reasons for skipping over these things. Every family has its fair share of skeletons and ghosts, but if genealogy has taught me anything, it's that people often disagree on what they are. What is common knowledge to one is a hidden secret to another, and only when we sit around these digital campfires and share our stories does the whole of our history begin to take shape.