The rather blurry image above is an image from Google, gleaned from Googling simply "family tree" images. I was looking for something to illustrate the point that I wanted to muse about today.
Which is how we perceive the lines of family when we are recreating them from records alone. The accepted practice is to draw family trees with each generation on the same line. This should give you half a chance of working out the cousins, second cousins etc in a visual way. It can lead to issues with fitting everyone onto your tree if you are physically drawing it onto paper but most computer programs and genealogy website treemakers will accommodate this principle.
But what about the stories behind those lines? From records, we might discover that a male ancestor had two or three wives, that they each had children and that there are resultant descendants. On our lovely diagram, it all looks very simple, especially if that male was widowed and then remarried, rather than divorced and then remarried.
Was it that simple in real life? For most of these relationships, you hope that it was indeed that easy. That the new wife took on the step children cheerfully and without resentment and that all that happened was that the lovely happy family just got bigger.
Except that of course we know that this probably was not the case. If the brother and sisters on one generational line had had a falling out, then it is unlikely that the cousins on the next line down would have had proper contact. And if a father had abandoned his children or had them fostered when his wife died, who is to say, just by looking at a diagram of essentially nothing but dates, whether those children had a happy ending in a big extended family when their father remarried?
As I have blogged about before, I enjoy the chase of genealogy and I like the sense of achievement when you solve a puzzle, break down a brickwall, whatever you want to call it. If you stop to think about it though, the human stories are what are missing in most family trees. (Unless you are Royalty and your every move has been pored over - and even then, who is to say what the truth is?!)
My mother's great grandmother Violet was left fatherless early in her life. She was one of three children and their mother Audra remarried then three more children came along. On the tree, it all looks quite easy. They are on the same line! How happy they must have been! Who is to say, though, what it was actually like to live as part of that family? Maybe the first three could not wait to leave home. Maybe the half brothers did not get on. We will never know.
And presumably in the future, if our descendants try to do their family trees, they will see the same neat lines of generations. They will probably never know the heartaches behind them. I wrote a couple of days ago about the "New Model Family". If we are lucky, our extended modern connections work out. If we are not lucky we may find ourselves on someone's future family tree sited happily next to someone whom in life we could not abide!