Last night, while my friend Cheryl and I were sitting in my driveway watching the kids blow up things, we got to talking.
“I once had a friend who said that one of the guys in KISS was her cousin,” Cheryl told me.
“Yeah,” I said, “I had a friend who said she was related to Jesse James.” (Aren’t we all?)
Cheryl went on, “The same girl told me that she had a cousin in Bachman Turner Overdrive when they went through town. In fact, I think she may have had a cousin in every band that played in the 70’s.”
We both laughed. Everyone knows someone who has a “cousin.”
Family history is full of legends and lies. And there are plenty of articles with great advice on how to slog through them in pursuit of your family facts – Cyndi’s List has a whole section dedicated to collecting oral history. But today is about taking the road less traveled. Today is about embracing the legends and loving the lies.*
Take my Grandfather Hancock. (This is, by the way, the first time in my life that I have ever referred to him as my Grandfather. Anywho…) He left my grandma, thirty-one and pregnant, high and dry with seven children at the height of the Depression. That’s a fact. My dad, the youngest, never met his biological father. That’s a fact too. But it is at the line where fact meets legend that Grandpa Hancock gets interesting. Wayne Hancock, so the story goes, was a traveling preacher, and would be gone from his family for months at a time. When I was thirteen, I overheard my Dad and a few of his siblings speculating at a family reunion that their father probably had another family “up river” somewhere. Maybe even two! Scandalous – yes. Intriguing – absolutely!
Then there’s his genealogy. Family reports suggest that Wayne was anywhere from eight to fifty percent Blackfoot, but exhaustive research has yet to unearth even one Native American in his line. Oh, and that claimed relation to Declaration signer John? Also unsubstantiated as of today. (Though I admit that I’m still holding out hope on that one.) And finally, even his name is still up for debate: half the family will put their hand on the Bible and swear his middle name was Tecumseh, named for the 19th century Shawnee leader. Cool, huh? But no record supports this, and census records indicate that his middle name began with an “F” and not a “T.” Those who cling to the myth simply dismiss the disparity, blaming Spencerian scrawl.
My point is, yes, I recognize that 98% this is richly embellished family folklore. But somewhere, under most family stories is a kernel of truth; it just takes the time and dedication to peel away the outer layers of malarkey. And if even no truth is found when you get to the center, the story still bears recording somewhere (albeit far from the Fact File). Because whether they are about royalty or riches, rock stars or rogues, these stories are little threads woven into our family fabric. These stories, and what we think about them, say something not only about their subjects, but about who we really are. They tell a truth of a different kind.
*Note: Unfortunately, some family stories are simply hurtful. Stop them. This post isn’t in any way about perpetuating painful gossip.
15-Minutes Family History: Consider one family legend. What are the details of the story? Do you remember where you first heard it? Does the family disagree on the “facts”? What do you think? Record these things in a journal or other appropriate place; just be sure to note the nature of the entry!