Herewith a quote from the July-August 2009 Discover magazine:
"...recent insights into memory are part of a large about-face in neuroscience research. Until recently, long-term memories were thought to be physically etched into our brain, permanent and unchanging. Now it is becoming clear that memories are surprisingly vulnerable and highly dynamic. In the lab they can be flicked on or dimmed with a simple dose of drugs. For a hundred years people thought memory was wired into the brain. Instead we find it can be re-wired - you can add false information to it, make it stronger, make it weaker, and possibly even make it disappear...memory is inherently flexible....The new science of memory already corrodes our trust in eyewitness testimony, in memoirs, in our most intimate records of truth. Every time we remember, it seems, we add new details, shade the facts, prune and tweak. Without realizing it we continually rewrite the stories of our lives. Memory, it turns out, has a surprising amount in common with imagination, conjuring worlds that never existed until they were forged in our minds."
WITHOUT REALIZING IT WE CONTINUALLY REWRITE THE STORIES OF OUR LIVES.
A thought to ponder in many contexts, including the context of family history.
I think I have mentioned in another entry here the many birth dates and birthplaces of my husband's maternal grandfather. Last week one of his grandsons, my husband's cousin, send me a copy of his father's birth certificate, in which YET ANOTHER birthplace for the baby's father is recorded.
Perhaps this man, my husband's grandfather, wasn't so much an anarchist, impatient with bureaucratic requirements (recall, all these different birthplaces and dates are on official documents) as simply not remembering with precision where and when he was born. He had left home at a very early age and perhaps without familial reminders of birthdays and family history, he simply didn't remember. When documents were put before him to fill in the blanks and sign them, he just did the best he could. At least all his birthplaces were in one country - Scotland - and his birthdays were all within a three year span.
The article quoted above tells us we can't depend on memory - ANYBODY'S memory including our own - to reflect the TRUTH. I have adduced evidence for the proposition that we cannot depend on official documents for such straight-forward facts as dates and places of birth, and I could list many other errors in these in my further experience with family history. We are left with wondering how important may be THE TRUTH in such matters.
Once upon a time. Starting a story that way gives it the flavor of a fairy tale. Perhaps that is it should be. Once upon a time, long, long ago...actually it was in June of 1908, a baby girl was born, the last of a family of eight, in Birmingham, England. The parents decided to name her Joan Isobel. Registration of the birth was required within thirty days but the time slipped by and her father Joseph, in the midst of a business crisis and very harried, neglected this task until the last minute of the last day, appearing at the Registry Office having utterly forgotten the plan for the baby's name. There were penalties for late registration so he had to go ahead regardless. He thought that he couldn't go wrong by naming her after her two grandmothers, so he recorded her name as Lydia Margaret. Her mother's mother was indeed Lydia, but his mother was named Anne, and had never been known by another given name.
So: I have demonstrated you can't fully depend on official documents, and to that I add, you can't fully depend on family legends.
Should I go on to the undependability of gravestones? Newspaper obituaries? Census records? Perhaps not; perhaps that can be taken as the case without further evidence. Wherein, therefore, lies THE TRUTH?
And how much does it matter? Mankind has got itself into a lot of trouble by segments of it believing they were sole possessors of a religious truth, and have gone about killing and torturing those who disagreed with their truth. It's still happening. But I feel a rant coming on, and shall deflect it by alluding to the way SCIENCE regards truth, which is much less sure. Science says, this is what we've come to on this point, and we accept that this tentative truth is the best we have at the moment, recognizing that at any moment evidence may alter or even overturn what we regard as this moment's operational "truth." This should be entirely tolerable but I guess toleration of such uncertainty depends on the individual's capacity to handle ambiguities. To apply this idea to the matter at hand - legends, family stories and truth - I am prepared to accept the varying birth dates and birthplaces of the head of one of my founding families, because of the FACTS of the differences on a succession of official documents; not the facts of the birth dates and birthplaces which cannot all represent TRUTH, but the fact that these dates and places are so documented.
Another cousin of my husband's is determined to get to the bottom of the date and place of his grandfather's birth. More power to him. A package came yesterday of the Internet researches he has been doing, which have homed in A LITTLE on a probable date and place. I am happy to enter his findings into my data base and include them - tentative though they are - in the book I am preparing about this forebear. But I have to come back to the question, how much does an absolute precision - an absolute TRUTH - matter? I now have for this individual copies of several possible birth certificates, several possible census records from several census periods, British Army records, attestation papers and paybooks for two hitches in the Canadian Army in World War I the ship's manifest for his immigration to Canada - plus the birth certificates of several of his children, and each has reference to his age, several down to precise date. No two are exactly alike.
How much does it matter?