Doesn’t this photo and romantic note capture your imagination? The essence of youthful joy springs from the photo, but it is the simple note included in a letter that makes us really feel it.
Finding the Romance in Your Family Tree
When building our family trees, we first track our forbearers’ birth dates, marriage dates, death dates, geographic locations, and other basic biographical details. Then, we may begin to create everyday story worlds around their lives with old letters, family photographs, general historical research, newspaper articles, family legends, courthouse records, land deeds, and other sources.
As family historians and genealogists, we zero in on the who, what, when, where, and why of our ancestors’ lives, and this brings me to today’s post. Valentine’s Day has given me occasion to ponder the ways family historians can communicate the romantic quality of courtship, marriages, and anniversaries to their family members.
Capturing the Essence of Relationships
First, capturing the essence of romantic relationships requires a storyteller’s approach. Second, research and documentation are essential to accurately portraying those relationships.
Idealizing romance is a natural tendency for many of us, but as family history writers, we want to be as accurate as possible when portraying a romantic relationship. In doing so, what we find might not be all hearts, stars, and Cupid’s arrows, but those stories are worth telling too.
A Storytelling Strategy
One strategy is to cobble together the story of a romance through a combination of sources. For example, in the case above, we could interview the young woman in the picture (now 84) and ask her some questions such as:
- What do you remember about this photograph?
- Where were you?
- How did you feel when you received the letter with your photograph enclosed?
- Did you know then that the letter writer was “the one?”
- What happened after this photograph was taken?
Then, we could select a few other courtship photographs, if available, to document the budding romance, add in the marriage certificate, newspaper engagement notice, wedding photos, saved love letters and cards (fit to print, that is!), and even fiftieth-anniversary photos. Many couples share a song they consider “our song” and remember a favorite romantic date. Interviewing the couples in your family while you can could be fascinating and illuminating work.
Also, we should examine those letters and notes left behind. Do they reveal any of the everyday story world details that will bring the romance alive for future readers? Does a photo indicate the couple’s story continues?
For example, can you look at this couple in the Naval Academy Ring Dance photograph and not wonder what happened next in their relationship?
Even your teenagers will be interested in learning about these courtships “back in the day!
Naval Ring Dance
My great-grandparents, as serious as they appear in their photographs, shared a deep love that was not overtly displayed by all accounts. However, romantic intention is expressed in the notes my great-grandfather wrote my great-grandmother during their courtship. Fortunately, we found some of these notes among our family papers.
In this photograph, they are standing in front of the family farmhouse door on their fiftieth anniversary — exactly the spot where they had been married fifty years prior. We would not know that romantic detail had my mother not noted it; we would not have “seen” the doors behind them as significant.
The “Sweetheart” pin on top of the photo was a pin my great-grandfather had given his sweetheart, probably early in their marriage or courtship. I can pull together snippets from his letters (I wonder where hers are?), their photographs, newspaper articles, and the letters of other family members to piece together the story of their romance.
Recently, I came across this Valentine’s Day card my grandfather gave my grandmother early in their courtship, circa 1913 or so, according to my grandmother’s notes on back.
I have always been fascinated by my maternal grandmother’s decision to remain unmarried for the first ten years of her courtship with my grandfather. In fact, I wondered if their marriage was one more of mutual fondness, practicality and proximity.
My mother has since told me that my grandmother refused to move out to the farmhouse until electricity was installed. Yet, based on the stories my grandmother told me when she was in her eighties, I had the impression my grandmother enjoyed her courthouse clerk job and traveling with her sister and friends around the United States, and consequently, put off marriage as long as she could. In fact, when I was fifteen, she told me no one should marry before the age of thirty!
Valentine’s Day Card, c1913
However, when I found the courtship valentine and a picture of my grandparents taken some forty years later among my mother’s family documents, photographs, and heirlooms, then I knew. I could feel the love in the card and, especially, in the photograph taken forty plus years and five grown children later.
Capturing your family ancestors as real human beings with complex emotions and motivations is a challenge for any family history writer. This Valentine’s Day, I recommend putting on your rose-colored glasses while you sift through your family documents and photographs to discover the romantic stories hidden in your family tree.
If you find one you’d like to share, please leave it in the comments below!