Yesterday, I was chatting with a gal in one of my bird groups who called herself a cheesehead. “I know what those are,” I said. “My great-uncle Herbert played with the Green Bay Packers. In fact, he is in the GBP Hall of Fame.” “What was his name,” she asked, and I replied “Herbert Leslie Nichols.” Next thing I know she sent me a link to a Packer site and a photo of the 1919 and 1920 squads when Uncle Herbert played. Wow! how exciting. For once my family got the story straight.
Ever since I was a kid, members of my family have been a little nutty on the subject of the Green Bay Packers. It never meant a lot to me, as I am NOT and never really have been a football fan. I was even married to a football coach for a short while back in the 1970s. At one of my daughter’s half-time performances (she played in the band), Don took me around the field and explained the game. Nothing. I still didn’t care.
My Aunt Marge (Herb’s niece) watched Packer games into her 90s. Even when she was legally blind, she pulled her chair close to her tv and watched the game. My husband David who never played football soon became a Packers fan too.
Yes, I was happy to discover that at least this family myth concerning Uncle Herbert was true. I was embarrassed once when I told Gerald Ford’s old secretary, who I worked with in the 1970s, that my Uncle Gerald knew Gerald Ford. Wrong. Another family myth that was not true. I once told a gal, who was a graduate of Michigan and knew everything about the Michigan yearbooks, that my Dad had been a year book editor. She knew the names of all the editors and told me his name did not ring a bell. When I visited Michigan, my dad’s old school, I went through the year books for the years he was there and discovered he had been editor of the Yearbook for the Department of Forestry. So, that time at least the myth was true, Dad had just failed to be specific. Other myths like one that said we were descended from Galileo and Lafayette proved not true, at least I think they are highly unlikely.
Family myths often point to some partial truth or half remembered truth, passed down through the family, and like the game of gossip altered by the retelling. Historians deal with this problem of memory and selective memory, as they “dig up” and review primary material such as personal letters, diaries, correspondence journals, etc.
Because different historians have different perspectives, they may themselves select material in such a way as to corroborate some point they are trying to make. One thing I have learned since I began studying history in earnest is that there are multiple versions of the same events. It’s enough to drive you nuts.
Finally, you realize that history is very complex.