She was a beautiful, young Irish maid, working in a wealthy English household. Her employer’s oldest son fell in love with her. When he announced intentions to marry her, his parents said they would disown him. He married her anyway. Then, bride and groom ran away to live happily ever after. “Her name was Mary Cordial,” my maternal grandmother Marilyn Matilda Dietz told me, that distinct glimmer of pleasure in her eyes—the one she always had when she retold this story. “And you are her legacy.”

This blog is a resource for those who want to--have to--find out more about who they came from.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Going with the Flo (or Maybe, No)

When I began this kind of research, I looked forward to the prospect of meeting distant family. Who wouldn’t? But then I encountered some people who made me rethink all that. One of them was an older woman who'd been documenting our family history for a long time.

Let’s call her “Flo.”

I contacted Flo after finding her name in several genealogy inquiries in publications which shall remain unnamed so as to protect her in her guilt. She was looking for descendants of my family in the 1980s, a time at which I was wearing too much eye makeup and watching too much MTV. She was easily found via a Google search, so I shot her a friendly email.

The first thing Flo writes is that she's "glad to meet" another family relation. She then tells me that she's spent A LOT of money and A LOT of time doing this research, which is not-so-subtle code for I-don't-feel-like-sharing-family-information-for–free.

No problem, I say; I understand. There's nothing more annoying than a lazy family researcher who wants to sit back and have information rained all over them, which they'll immediately post online (of course) and for which they'll take complete credit, with no polite mention of the generous person who helped them get the information. I've been there and done that a dozen times now.

Flo is also plain regarding her jealousy about my having managed to get as far back as I have in only two years using the Internet when it took her over twenty years to amass the same amount of data. There's not much that I can do, however, to remedy her resentment of modern technology.

What I propose is an information exchange. I'll share what I've discovered (or tripped over, in some cases) in exchange for being pointed in the right direction. Flo agrees, and we're off. Or so I think.

Flo tells me lots of things. Names. Places. Dates. I keep everything she states on file and send her what I have—which isn't much, so I offer to send her scans of various certificates. Interestingly, she doesn't take me up on the offer.

And then, after I mention that I've sent away for some other certificates based on information she's shared, Flo suddenly and inexplicably stops emailing me. Poof. All gone.

The reason becomes obvious when the certificates arrive. She's altered information, changed death dates to be one day and one year off. She's given me her dead ends; for example, a death certificate she says is my great-great grandfather's lists the wrong parents—it isn't him. She's also withheld information, giving me the exact date of birth for my great-great grandmother, but neglecting to mention that she obtained this information from my great-great's grandmother's death certificate (which I obtain a few months later anyway with the help of an obituary located online), even though she knows I'm desperately trying to figure out where that great-great grandmother died.

Obviously, Flo didn't owe me anything information-wise. She did, however, owe me some basic human honesty in what she shared. Her misinformation cost me both time and money. If she didn't want to exchange information, she should have just said so and shuffled back off into the void of cyberspace.

So, Flo, here is a revised Irish prayer for you: May all the family history information you gain going forward be similarly polluted. May you encounter "family" who know exactly what information you need most, and may they decide not only to NOT tell you, may they purposely mislead you. You so richly deserve it.

The oft-repeated moral of such a story as this: Confirm everything you're told with documentation. A lazy family historian would have just posted the phony information in a family tree and let a thousand people pick it up and spread it—Genealogical VD. That's why professionals regard posted GEDCOMs with appropriate suspicion. Don't be apathetic about your family history; do your own research before posting online.

Also, be sure to take what any "Flo" may tell you with a softball-sized grain of salt.

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