Book of Mormon

Wise County Virginia Civil War Group

I’ve been using the free, on line service FamilySearch to research parts of my family history. It is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I call it, in a respectful way, the Book of Mormon.

My reference library has a copy of the actual Book of Mormon, replete with a photo of the prophet Joseph Smith from whose translations it was made in 1830. I’ve already opened FamilySearch many more times than the worn copy of the religious text.

Stories about early gatherings of my paternal ancestors include one about the funeral for “Aunt Stella.” I have a photograph of Stella in her coffin with someone identified as “Granny Reed” nearby. Stella was my grandfather’s sister. Oral history is no one knew anything about Granny Reed except that’s what they called her. According to FamilySearch, in the 1920 U.S. Census she is listed living in the household of my great grandfather as his mother-in-law, with an estimated birth year of 1864. Her complete name was Josephine Reed. It has bothered me we didn’t know more. Now thanks to the Mormons there is a better narrative of who she was.

When I write “better narrative” I mean the story is and continues to be a human creation. While there are “facts” to support it, there are vagaries in the U.S. Census data and oral tradition that went unrecorded. The temptation is to take a fact like a U.S. Census entry and make more of it than it actually is. As I wrote this post I found myself rewriting that paragraph time and again to refine my understanding of who was Granny Reed. I’m not sure how much more this discovery changes things.

I love the name Josephine and had we known about it when our daughter was born, it may have been entered into the pool of family names from which we selected hers. Granny Reed was our daughter’s great, great, great grandmother. It’s a fun fact yet not that relevant to our daily lives.

Somewhere in box-storage is a trove of genealogy documents collected from a man named Howard Deaton during a trip to Saint Louis. His focus was on our surname, Some of his work is relevant to our line and some isn’t. Robert Caro advises us to turn every page when researching biography. I don’t know I will have time to go through documents I have, let alone the entire Book of Mormon.

These are decisions one makes in compressing the story of a life into a hundred thousand words. If anything, the challenges of crafting a story come into high relief. What I’m writing will by its nature be a story built today with a perspective of right now. I don’t see how any biography or historical work can be anything else. There is a politics of history, a minefield of historian’s fallacies. There is also a poetry of history. What we hope to do is create a narrative grounded in something real that transcends the lived life upon which it was based.

At age 68 there is an urgency to get something down, edited and finished.

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