Burton Lee Roberts and The Ghost of Christmas Past

“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.

“I am!”

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if, instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

“Who and what are you?” Scrooge demanded.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Scrooge; observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him; but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap; and begged him to be covered.

“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?”

Scrooge reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having willfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:

“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”

It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.

“Rise! and walk with me!”

(Quote from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

 

Skecth from The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Skecth from The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Some people seek to extinguish the light of their past, when in fact, that light is the beginning of our reclamation.  Let us rise and walk.  Let us raise our past as a means to enter our future.

Photo from early 1960s Christmas card
Photo from early 1960s Christmas card

Everything about my dad’s behavior suggested he loved Christmas.  He became as giddy as a school child, something I think he missed growing up.  His involvement and participation in family activities virtually went “through the roof” at Christmas.  He secured the tree and set it up.  It was Mom’s and our job to decorate it.  He collaborated

Dad oversees the excitement.
Dad oversees the excitement.

with Mom to buy the gifts and selected many all on his own.  He really knew what a little boy wanted!  I think my mother did most of the wrapping but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad helped.  He posed for Christmas picture postcards one year (See above).  He bought the long play Christmas albums that filled our house with seasonal cheer.  He was the last one to bed on the eve and the first one up on The Day.  Long before light he made sure no one else could sleep by pounding up and down the hall on those old wooden floors in our seventy-year-old pier-and-beam house.  One year he was so excited about an unknown

The Christmas watch stand
The Christmas watch stand

gift from our neighbor Colonel Garrison that he instituted, for the one and only time mind you, an “open one gift on Christmas Eve” policy.  His was a gold pocket watch stand.  It was meant to hold an old Elgin railroad watch he bought from me for $3.00 back in the 4th grade!  (That’s another story for another day.)  The watch and stand set on my desk for many years and now occupies the top of a foldout desk positioned behind my work area.  With the exception of one year, Christmas was my favorite time to be alive and belong to the Bob Roberts’ household.

My dad had ghosts from his Christmases past.  My older brother David observes the strain in his memoirs, “…I know that Dad and Grandpa didn’t get along very well and I never saw Dad show any affection toward Nanny…” [1][i](That’s Dad’s mother, our grandmother).  David makes this statement even though most of people thought of Dad as a “hugger”.  There was clearly some “history” in those relationships.

I was the middle child and the second child of the same sex in our little family.  I had all the symptoms.  I was a pest and had an insatiable curiosity (nothing to do with being a middle child).  I constantly peppered Dad with questions.  On the very rare occasion he allowed me to peak into his pain, it was hard for me to understand.  I remember pestering him one day about his dad.  I had spent so little time with Papoo and he was so reserved, I knew almost nothing more than what I observed.  So, I kept peppering Daddy, “What was your dad like?”   “What was Papoo like?”   Finally frustrated, he blurted out, “He was a mean, old, bitter, blankety blank!”  But he didn’t say blankety blank!  I backed off that day and later thought as I crawled toward adulthood, how much those very words could be used to describe Dad.  He had become what he perceived his father to be.  We both needed some understanding, some healing.

Dad’s “ghosts” from his past chased him into his future – and “haunted” him.  He had “demons” he allowed to control him.  He had an addictive personality.  He was angry and often depressed.  He was a binge alcoholic.  Once he started drinking he couldn’t stop.  He was one of those who had to stay completely away from alcohol.  If he chose to drink, it would eventually lead to the loss of a job and income for his family.  He joined Alcoholics Anonymous for a while and had modest success.  But the “ghosts” of his past drove him to the darkness rather than the light.  One year it would be on Christmas.  No season was immune from the “ghosts”.

Unlike his parents, Dad and Mom were not religious.  I’ve often joked that the only time I heard God mentioned in our home growing up was when it had a “damn” attached to it.  They allowed us to go to church but I can’t remember seeing them in a church service more than once or twice.  Dad had little time for religion or religious people.  Yet he was instrumental in my own salvation.  Here’s how.  (1) Dad taught me to respect and respond to authority.  He was a strict disciplinarian.  (2) I didn’t want to become like my dad.  So, when the Supreme Authority of the universe invited me into His grace through Jesus Christ, I responded in the affirmative.  Dad had taught me to respect and respond to authority.  Six years later I entered the ministry.  I eventually developed into a very religious person and I don’t mean this in a good way.

One week while attending a Christian conference the Lord helped me understand the principle and the power of a negative focus.  I had been so focused on not becoming like Dad that I became “just like” him.  Oh, I didn’t smoke, drink or cuss.  I didn’t have all of the same addictions.  But, I was proud, boastful, opinionated, angry, controlling and at times controlled by my own “ghosts”.  I had become like my dad.  I needed to be forgiven and to forgive.  And to top off the week, God impressed me to go home to Dad; not to confront him about the failures of his past but to ask his forgiveness! Honestly, I had already forgiven him for any real or imagined mistreatment in my past.  It was time for me to ask his forgiveness.  Here’s why.  For many years, through my relationship with Jesus, I had the power to respond correctly to my dad and any perceived wrongs.  I had not availed myself of His strength.  I too was angry and bitter.  I needed Dad to forgive me for my wrong responses.  So I made a trip home to see him.  It would be our third and final significant spiritual conversation.  He forgave me.

A few years before Dad’s death I learned something I believe eased some of his pain.  I’ve written about it previously.  I learned Dad’s grandmother had been convicted of participating in the murder of his grandfather.  Dad’s dad never really knew his father and was raised as an orphan.  Maybe this knowledge helped him understand Gus Roberts, his dad, a little better.  Maybe he knew that even though it did’nt excuse his dad’s misdeeds, it did help us to potentially understand them.  Maybe.

For the last eight years of Dad’s life, he was as “sober as a judge”.  In fact, he was a judge!  I think Dad enjoyed those years and I know Mom did.  He was eventually named Citizen of the Year in Krum, Texas and buried with honors in 1988.

Rest in Peace Dad.  Your story will be told.

I share this because I can only share Dad’s story from my perspective.  I need the reader to understand what this perspective is.  I have the historical record.  I have my memories.  I have the relationship we shared.  I don’t have the final say.  I’m not the final judge.  I’m someone who believes in bringing the past into the light to propel us into a better future.  And dear grandchildren, never forget, I am the “teller of tales”.

______________________________________

“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole train of years to wear it low upon my brow?”

Scrooge reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having willfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

(Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol)

 

[i] My Journey:  The Autobiography and Family History of David L. Roberts by David Lee Roberts.  January 2015.

Merry Christmas to my gracious readers of this simple blog.  I’m grateful and thankful for you!

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Genealogy Tip #9: Writing Family Stories and the Genealogical Proof Standards

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”?[i]

Writing Our Family StoriesMany family storytellers aren’t interested in genealogical proof standards.  They’re simply telling stories to entertain.  That’s their goal.  I applaud the storyteller.  I love a good story.  But, the family historian can’t afford to adopt this attitude.  Their goal must first be accuracy and then entertainment.  Otherwise, it’s not history and they’re not a family historian.  So, let’s be clear, this post is not about family stories vs. genealogical proof standards.  It’s about family stories and genealogical proof standards.  It’s about how we take well researched family facts and use them to tell accurately entertaining stories – and if we can’t, we should make it clear we’re only repeating a family tale.

I visited a “family history” website this past week that illustrates the clash.  The writer warned me in the first few lines not to trust all of the things written about their family on the internet (Sites and trees other than theirs is what they had in mind.).  One page later they inform us their ancestors welcomed Davy Crockett into their home in Tennessee as he made his way to the Alamo.  They further claim their ancestors were neighbors to another Republic of Texas history legend, Edward Burleson.[ii]  This is done without any reference to one scintilla of evidence supporting such claims.  Is this a problem? Yes? No? Maybe?  Tell the story.  It’s not a “crime”.  It’s not the problem.  To repeat it as historical fact or as if it were historically accurate IS a problem.

Family stories are told in many forms all over the world.  This isn’t a problem.  If you’re telling family stories, you’re not in trouble – even if they’re speculative and knowingly or unknowingly inaccurate.  However, if you tell these unsubstantiated stories as if they’re historical facts and you expect other family trees to reflect your “notion of the truth”, this is a problem.  And if you’re reading and repeating these stories as “gospel truth”, you’re participating in and propagating a problem.

Family stories and genealogical proof standards are not incongruous.  You need not decide one or the other.  You can choose both.  Here are some suggestions.

First, Understand the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Standards book cover“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Each element contributes to a conclusion’s credibility in a different way, described in the table below, but all the elements are necessary to establish proof.

Element of the GPS Contribution to Credibility
Reasonably exhaustive research
  • Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
  • Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion
Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item
  • Demonstrates the extent of the search and the quality of the sources
  • Allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.)
Tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence
  • Facilitates sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source
  • Ensures that the conclusion reflects all the evidence
Resolution of conflicts among evidence items
  • Substantiates the conclusion’s credibility. (If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.)
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
  • Eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence
  • Explains how the evidence led to the conclusion “

(The previous quote is taken from the Board for Certification of Genealogist blog[iii])

This should be the standard for our family history research.

Need more information?  Consider these excellent resources:

Next, Understand the Purpose(s) of Our Stories

Why do we tell our family stories?

  1. Inform and Encourage. Knowing our family’s history helps us find “our place”.  We gain a sense of belonging and find value in our family members’ accomplishments and place in history.
  2. Inspire. We tell our family stories to inspire family members and others to greatness.  “Common people” accomplishing uncommon things inspires us to rise to a greater finish.
  3. Warn. We share our family’s stories as a warning to ourselves and others.  We all have “black sheep” in our families.  (They’re some of my favorites.)  Telling their stories in our “tales” warns us about our present path or our possible future.  Someone will tell our story one day.  Will it inspire or warn off a future generation?
  4. Entertain. Our stories may inform, encourage, inspire or even warn.  They should also entertain.  Think about it.  If our goal is to inform and inspire, aren’t we more likely to accomplish this if we’re also entertaining?

What makes our stories entertaining? 

I would be the last person to tell you how to write.  I’m woefully inadequate.  I do, however, have a fair ability to recognize a good story and a good storyteller.  They can articulate or at least know intuitively their story needs three parts.  (Don’t think beginning, middle and end.)  Think instead of your favorite stories/movies.  What do they have in common?  Every good story has three ingredients:

  • Origination. The listener/reader needs to be drawn in and at the same time oriented to the main character and crisis in the story.  It grabs, excites, introduces, informs and compels the reader/listener forward into the story.  The first part of a good origination could be a sentence, paragraphs or chapters in length.  For example, “James Williams was short in stature but he was guaranteed another inch or two from the hangman’s noose.”  Conflict (inner or outer) in one form or another is always introduced in this first part.  To have a story, something has to go wrong.
  • The conflict escalates. Things may get better, but they eventually get worse.  There may be a series of improvements but if there is, things continue to get worse after each one.  It’s a roller-coaster of emotions as you learn more and care more about the main character and feel stronger angst toward his combatants.  Impending doom is approaching.  “…James’ attorney had located his third potential witness to alibi his client and save him from the gallows, but like the previous two, he too disappeared.”  The tension builds.
  • Resolution.  The story is brought to a conclusion when the initial conflict is brought to a resolution.  In the fictional stories I used to tell my children, the hero always won.  But, that’s not always possible when telling historically accurate stories.  Sometimes James Williams is hung.

There is a wealth of information on “what makes a good story”.  Google it.  Read a book about it.  Take a course.  Practice. Practice.  Practice.  But never stop learning or trying to make your stories entertaining.  Our improving ability to tell our stories will increase the likelihood our family histories will be known, cherished and repeated.

Use the comment section to share any “what makes a good story” material you know of to help family history writers.

Now, Combine the two disciplines.

Here’s how we transform our family research into entertaining, historical, uncompromised family stories.

  1. Use the Genealogical Proof Standards as a guideline in your family research. Have a story to tell based on historical facts demonstrated by historical, genealogical evidence.  Catalog and save your documentation.  Use endnotes to share your sources.
  2. Write or tell your story based on the facts you’ve uncovered and documented. Write your story using the guidelines on what makes a good story.  It will take time and practice but you can do it.  Make it a good story.  Make it a true story.  Use accurate, documented facts.
  3. If you feel you must tell your relative’s tall tale (or short tale) about your ancestor, or you just want to tell it, clearly identify it as a historically unsubstantiated tale.

Writing our family’s history is fun and entertaining.  To be history, it needs to be accurate.  We’re not creating fictional families.  We’re family historians.  We’re uncovering history.  We tell the rich story of our ancestors.  Knowing their true stories adds richness to our lives.  Telling their stories well adds richness to the lives of others.

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Now, let’s go write those entertaining stories!

[i] According to Barry Popik this phrase or a form of it is often credited to Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie but it appeared in print as early as 1882 or six years before Dobie was born.

[ii] The website mentioned in this example is real but being withheld in order to…well, protect my possible cousin!

[iii] Board for Certification of Genealogist.

[iv] Available at Amazon.

[v] Available at Amazon.

[vi] Available at Amazon.