What Do You Know?

Credit: Jon Klein

Credit: Jon Klein

Recently, a woman I know received a surprise in the mail. A relative of nearly 90 years old had sent a photograph she’d never seen before. It was an old black and white family photo that raised more questions than gave answers — and she already had questions, plenty of them.

Two grandparents had died in their forties, one of them due to questionable causes. They were in the photo. And her mother was there, too. The woman’s mother, a child of eleven, stood in front of her father in a curious position, one elbow gripped tightly in his hand and raised at an awkward angle, as if she was resisting him. The expression in her eyes reminded of a frightened cat ready to bolt. For years, the woman’s mother had suffered from “nervous” conditions we attribute now to PTSD. This was the first time the woman had seen a photo of her mother with her parents.

Don’t intentionally or unintentionally preserve a family tradition of secret-keeping.

With no one in the old family photo alive today or old enough at the time to have answers to her questions, the woman has to resort to conjecture as she pieces together possibilities in her lineage. And even if someone in the photo were alive, they might not explain anything. Secrets and changed truths abounded in her family. Was her German grandfather really Jewish and concealing that for his safety in the 1920s? He was a devout Christian who insisted his kids also be. But why did he know Yiddish? No one had dared ask then and there was no one left to ask now.

Her grandmother had died suddenly, exhibiting symptoms that were never explained or medically understood but which could characterize a genetic disease currently making her daughter terribly ill, at close to forty years old. No one spoke much about her grandmother’s early death or mentioned a health condition, and it’s taken tremendous research to find out what the woman’s family knows now: the daughter’s debilitating disease is genetic.

Without evidence, threads of connection cannot be traced.

What’s the solution? Write. No matter how little you know, write it down. Don’t worry about gaps in your knowledge. Don’t intentionally or unintentionally preserve a family tradition of secret-keeping. Chances are, the secret-keeping is long out of date. No one will likely suffer for knowledge of even shards of truth you can share, and surprising benefits could come.

You may be like the woman who with possibly different roots than what she was raised to believe and whose family may possess a genetic trait for a serious disease. You too may have more questions than answers. Still, write what you know. You can say that, too: I am writing what I know. Don’t let the glass half empty be the story that passes on. Carry the attitude that the glass is half full, not half empty. The web you weave may be ragged, but as you trace the threads that connect your family stories there’s a good chance you’ll find valuable patterns in a recognizable design.