One recent evening at home, I was pursuing one of my hobbies, genealogy. My family tree had grown over the years, aided by my genealogy app. These days, searching for relatives to add to the tree is much less difficult than in the past. While you are sleeping, the program’s algorithms seek out potential relatives based on the names and background of family already in the tree and makes suggestions for additions. However, sometimes the program may be overly helpful.
The names of family members are shown in boxes organized by generation. When new details become available for a potential addition, a shaking leaf appears in the corner of the box. Click on the leaf and you are shown the details about that new, potential relative. There are always chances for errors because people may share a name and birth date. One quickly learns to enter a new name only with caution.
One night I was researching details about a possible addition, apparently a brother of my mother’s grandfather, named Harry Ryan. He had popped up as the result of a search. My mother’s grandparents were immigrants who settled in Poughkeepsie. Lots of Irish there including many families named Ryan.
Harry’s name appeared in a U.S. census form shown to me from 1910 listing all the Ryan family members living at one address. His date of birth made sense in terms of the birth order of the Ryan siblings in the household. He carried the Ryan surname so I assumed the he was one of the Ryan boys in the house.
Unfortunately, other details about his life were scanty which was unusual but tantalizing. Digging deeper into his life became an obsession for me. When I asked my parents about him, they shook their heads in bewilderment and said that they had never heard his name. At the time, I was not sure whether they simply knew nothing or were perhaps hiding something. Putting the black sheep in the barn as it were.
I must confess that my interest in genealogy, on occasion, put me at odds with some of my relatives. I had never been known as a source of family news. By comparison, there were one or two relatives who were the keepers of family lore. On one occasion, I said to an aunt: “Did you know that Uncle Fred served for three years in the Army, stationed in Germany toward the end of World War II?” “No, that’s not correct,” she said. “My mother once told me that he never got called up.” End of discussion.
I tried to counter by saying that the records stated otherwise. She then said: “Then the records are wrong.” I soon learned not to get into such arguments because it caused too many hurt feelings. Our “received” family history and lore, a set of stories, always trumped my genealogic information based on written records, which, in truth, were not always themselves accurate.
I want to digress here briefly to discuss my family’s attitude about secret-keeping. I never quite understood their tendency to want to “paper over” various details about relatives. Let’s say that a relative was an alcoholic or a cousin was born a few months after her parents were married. My own view about such situations was that “stuff happens” and “suck it up.” The sooner one acknowledges a problem, I thought, the sooner you can discuss it and put it behind you.
Family members can be motivated to keep a secret if revealing it would disrupt current family relationships and dynamics. Keeping such a secret sometimes isn’t motivated by shame, however, but rather by the desire to maintain the status of that family branch. Unfortunately, lots of energy can be expended suppressing a secret.
As part of my genealogy tools, I subscribed to a service that scanned newspapers across the country going back decades and made them available for an on-line search. I was intent on knowing more about my mysterious Uncle Harry Ryan. One evening, I ran a search of newspapers for him. I was lucky enough to learn that my service did include the Poughkeepsie newspaper.
To my astonishment, there was coverage about one Harry Ryan who was being tried in New York City for involvement in a mob-related murder. The date was 1938. A subsequent article said that Harry had been found guilty of being an accomplice to murder and sentenced to Sing Sing for twenty years.
I now had a very big problem. I could forget about Harry or discuss the news with family members. I must confess, and in retrospect, that part of the way that I behaved was based on pure ego with a healthy dollop of disdain for suppressing secrets in my family. I thought that perhaps the present might be the right time to bust this open. Yes, I was going to personally smash some doors down without regard for the consequences.
The next evening, I called my Uncle Jack to share my news about our relative, Harry Ryan. I chose not to tell my mother whose motto tended to be “peace at any price.”
“Jack,” I said over the telephone, “I believe that our Uncle Harry Ryan was mob-connected and went to Sing Sing for a murder rap.”
He replied: “I've never heard of him and why are you even bringing this up?”
“It’s just something I thought you might like to know,” I responded.
“You're not doing the family any favor,” he replied.
I hung up but became more nervous about letting this particular cat out of the bag.
The next night my mother called. ‘Why did you talk to my brother Jack about Harry? Of course, none of us knew much about him l but he was a valued family member who needed support regardless of the circumstances.”
Harry had now turned into a "valued family member."
"Why this shifting story?" I asked her abruptly.
“You don’t need to know everything,” she blurted out. “We always just assumed that he got into a bad crowd and was forced to confess to the murder,” she said in an aggressive tone. “Life was hard in those days. You had such an easy life by comparison. And you’re causing nothing but trouble with your little hobby.”
I got busy with my day job and drifted away temporarily from my genealogy and the ripples I had caused in the family. I too had almost forgotten about the “Harry Ryan” affair and began to focus on the fact that Thanksgiving was approaching. I called my mom to find out where the family dinner would be held, usually rotating between my parents’ house and those of my mother’s five siblings.
“Where is our annual Thanksgiving dinner riot going to be?” I ask my mother.
“No family dinner this year,” she replied.
Her answer astonished me. The family had usually managed to pave over their chronic, petty disputes in the Fall and went on to choose one home for the annual Thanksgiving gathering.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“The family has just openly split into two opposing camps,” she replied. “There’s the group I call the ‘law and order” crowd who want to stamp out bad behaviors. They have a punitive and revenge-seeking approach and viewed Uncle Harry as someone who broke the rules and had to serve his time. In their opinion, it was well deserved. On the other side as the “forgive and forget” group, who viewed Harry as an example of someone who was misjudged by society.”
I panicked at hearing this. I had personally caused a major rift in the family through my naivete. I felt the urgent need to recheck the facts about Harry Ryan using my genealogy toolkit. I delved deeper and found that he was not really a blood relative – he came from a different Ryan family in Poughkeepsie.
How then did he show up in the U.S. census tally of the household of my grandparents? He was likely a boarder, a status that was very common in households at the time. Allocate one the beds in the house to a paying lodger and increase family income. Also hire a young immigrant girl as a housemaid to make beds and clean up so the mother could attend to other matters. Such help was very cheap at the time.
I now had a serious problem. How to inform my mother and other members of my family that my error had caused a mini-war? So, I bided my time, which is to say, I removed myself from family affairs for a week and then relented. I pulled out my cell and phoned her. When she picked up, I said: “I am calling to apologize to you and to the entire family."
I caused a family split based on my error about Harry Ryan. He was only a boarder with your grandparents in Poughkeepsie – not a blood relative!”
My mother replied: “Don’t worry about it. Totally irrelevant but I will pass on the news. It won’t serve to heal the bad blood.”
“What do you mean? You’ve cancelled Thanksgiving dinner because of the bad information I spread,” I replied.
“Your news was the spark but the whole mess was waiting to explode at any time and for any reason. It could have been only a traffic ticket to set things off. The “forgive and forget” group and the ‘law and order” group were just waiting for something to happen to blame on the other side. Emotions will probably calm down before Christmas and we will break bread together again at some later time.”
So, what did I learn from all of this? Family dynamics can be fragile and complicated. And more importantly, family history isn’t destiny. For different members of a family, there are varying needs for interactions and harmony. Some family members are at the center of activities and some are bystanders at the periphery. The dynamics in a particular family aren't limited to current, living generations. They also include previous generations because we still feel the effects of some of their traditions, structures, and habits.
I have also come to believe that the fact that “my” Harry Ryan was a “criminal” was not necessarily that relevant. It probably might have had an equal effect if he had been a Harvard professor. That new fact might have been equally disruptive of family members’ power or status. If you want to stay at the periphery of your family dynamics, consider family dinners as a spectator sport and never, never get on the field of play. And stay away from anything that looks like a family tree.