The Ghost of Failures Past

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I have a ghost standing at my shoulder, pointing a skeletal finger at my family history “to do” list to remind me of my deficiencies. This ghost arrives at year’s end when The Weekly Genealogist arrives with a survey asking if I’ve completed my genealogical goals, and then asking what my goals are for the coming year.

Wait! There’s a difference?

To be sure, I have “failed” to complete several (okay, most) of the items on my list. For instance, Son spent hours putting together two archival albums of old family photos, newspaper clippings, and other fragile documents. Epiphany and Revelation hit me as I was identifying for him the people in those photos and the subjects of the newspaper articles. He didn’t know who they were, and I really need to create the identification index for the albums, a very important project for perhaps the only person in the family who can identify the photos. I suppose the ten days I spent baking my annual All Things Cookie Overload instead of creating that index might not be as important, but some of the cookie recipients are the guys who plow and sand my driveway, and the cookies make them (and my quality control husband) happy. Enough said!

I have yet to obtain the exact date of death of my paternal great-grandmother, Ellen Francis “Nellie” (Cony) (Church) Hayward. All that task requires is a quick visit to the vital records office here, a visit I can’t seem to schedule. I also “failed” to find the parents of my umpteenth great-grandfather James Howard – or maybe he was a George whose father might or might not have been Robert or William – whose ancestor might or might not have been St. Philip Howard. I’m not sure it matters: such parentage won’t win me a hall pass to the Vatican anyway.

[We] found the full story of my grandfather’s barn burning, as well as the details of my paternal uncle’s illness and death, details which were never discussed by the family.

However, I prefer to turn any negative to a positive, so I will point out to the ghost that, with the help of Son, we found the full story of my grandfather’s barn burning, as well as the details of my paternal uncle’s illness and death, details which were never discussed by the family. Those details gave us more perspective to the impact of that illness and death on his family and the following generations.

We also found more information about my paternal grandfather’s World War I military service, and answered my question of “Why is he in uniform in this photo? He never went anywhere!” All that was prompted by finding some fascinating 1918, 1919, and 1920 issues of a newspaper, the Illustrated Weekly, which offered pages of photos, sometimes graphic, of the conflict.

I don’t agree that these incomplete tasks are “failures,” because I haven’t given up on them, so I’ll just add them to this year’s “to do” list. This Ghost of Failures Past will then become the Angel of Successes Yet to Come. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

9 thoughts on “The Ghost of Failures Past

  1. This is perfect Jan. I was into “doing family history,” with my maternal Grandmother back in the 1970s. She was then into her 90s but had such a keene memory of her many Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and still a large correspondence with some of the cousins with whom she grew up. One winter it popped into my mind clippings in shoeboxes along her upstairs steps. She was with me, my sister was coming to see her, so asked her bring all those shoeboxes. We spent lots of time going over them that winter, Grandma using a magnifying glass on most. Sister also brought her a scrapbook. That summer she put them in, spread out on her table at home. A cousin came in, she said “See what Mary had gotten me into.” That was a Success! Last winter I finally got around to indexing it, another Success:) I know you know what is said here. She has been gone since 1983. The Failure would have been beyond any imagination. So if I want to pat myself on the back it is the thing we most value & her willingness to do it.

      1. It is the scrapbook of clippings (which I page numbered) indexed on Excel, has made it so much easier to find the clipping now when someone would like a copy. Don’t have to hunt through over 100 pages to find the surname asked for. She put the Clippings in fairly good order but once in awhile some families became mixed as they were in life actually with siblings marrying siblings of another family, many of those offspring are double cousins of course. And my Grandmother also endearingly put a few of the clippings upside down, somehow that makes me realize she was getting tired of that day of sorting them, so I think she quit until the next day because all the rest of the page is all right side up:)

  2. Jan,

    I love this semi-tongue in cheek article! The last year has been more or less a total failure genealogy-wise for me. But I’ve had a few successes, too. My maternal grandfather’s only sister’s descendants have begun to be interested, and at least I’ve promised to get my act together for the teens in that family. The problem there is that when I moved from one apartment to another in my retirement home so they can renovate it, the external thumb drive on which I store my genealogy file for automatic back up rather casually got put in the desk drawer. The desk went to storage, and I won’t see it for 3 months! I do have another copy on my hard drive, but at this point I’m not sure they’re in sync. Sigh.

    The recipe card, well used, reminds me of a grand success, though I admit it belongs to my sister, not to me. The year our mother turned 100, my sister went through her recipe file and her favorite Betty Crocker Cookbook, which Mom had gotten as a wedding present. Sister picked out the family favorites, as judged by her memories and the splatters on the recipe cards and the pages in the cookbook. She put together a 30 page cookbook, with three original cards on one side of each page, and on the opposing page, her legible version and the kind of occasion when the dish would be served. It was organized from breakfast to dessert. My sister got it spiral bound at a nearby copy store, and we all got a copy for Christmas. It was a hit! Mom was thrilled more than anybody.

    For our post-Christmas get together that year, my sister-in-law decided that our potluck meal would be taken from that cookbook of Mom’s recipes. We had to sign up, to be sure the brunch wouldn’t have too many duplicates. I brought the tomato aspic, which had been a family favorite but which nobody’d made in decades. My brother kept coming back for more, so I gave him all the leftovers.

    You’ve encouraged me to get back into things again, Jan, at least to work on my promise to those teenagers who are finally showing an interest in their family history.


  3. Dear Kindred Spirits, my family history paraphernalia is not limited to my office, but creeps and sneaks into every other room in the house! Those unindexed albums sit across from my chair in the living room, waiting for me to create the list which identifies each item and photo in the album. Maybe I’ll just use removable labels instead when I get to it . . .

  4. Yes, that I understand, same here, have scanned the photos, my Grandmother thankfully has written in those old albums of photos those she knew, she probably shouldn’t have, but I am forever glad she did. There are numerous baby photos, thankfully again, she did know herself and her brother and one other cousin, but most are unknown and explained to me they were before her time:) So I just share the scans and hope some cousin might have one the same that in her generation or before were also written in. So far only one. But that one is treasured, otherwise the albums are just treasures of photos. The albums are somewhat coming apart except for one, sadly, so old.

  5. What a great article! It so nice to know I am not alone! I am continually moving piles of genealogy documents, unidentified photos, notes from my “rabbit trails” I’ve taken, etc. from one side of the dining table to the other. My goals for last year (many not accomplished) have also been moved to this year’s list of goals. We’ll see whether or not I whittle down the list in 2019. If not, there is always next year.

  6. Just shuffled a bunch of old photos the same way, noticing as I had not before there is something written on the back by one of my parents or grandparents:) Maybe this year they can go in a file after I scan them which was the first intention anyway:)

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