I received this ferrotype when my maternal grandmother died. She always said it was of her grandparents, who had passed away before she was born. The stories she heard about them from relatives were thus linked in her mind with these images.
However, as my older brother began investigating our genealogy, the family story about this picture didn’t add up. The ferrotype technology was out of fashion in the era it was supposedly taken and the military uniform is of a Pennsylvania regiment in which my great-great-grandfather did not serve. Further spadework proved that the image is in fact a generation further back in our family tree than our grandmother knew. When she visualized her grandparents she was in fact relying on a picture of her great-grandparents.
I doubt it would have bothered her much to learn the truth. She’d have felt silly for a few minutes but then let it go. After all, she didn’t know them personally so it just isn’t that big of a deal.
The debunking of family myths is not always so benign. I had a colleague whose faith in his own family and in people in general was shattered when he learned that the woman he thought was his mother was in fact his maternal grandmother, the woman he grew up thinking was his older sister was in fact his mother and his “uncle” on the other side was in fact his grandfather. The family had created a network of lies to cover up two scandals (an out of wedlock teen pregnancy and a military desertion). They fooled everyone for decades. Once my colleague found out the truth from his dying mother, he could never forget nor forgive the deceptions. He himself died, in his 80s, still bitter about the myths of his childhood.
In a less serious but still painful case, two women on Antiques Roadshow brought in for appraisal a violin that had been in their family for many years. The family story was that it was a Stradivarius, which the master craftsman had produced in honour of his beautiful new wife Faciebat Ano (Her name was even on the violin!). When the appraiser revealed that Faciebat Ano means “Made in the Year” and the instrument was a cheap reproduction, their disappointment in the destruction of their family myth must have been accentuated by the humiliation of looking ignorant on national television.
My favorite family myth story concerned two women from Manchester. One of them in late life began digging into her family’s history and found that she had a distant cousin who was probably still living. She tried to track the cousin’s whereabouts and found that she resided only a few miles away! She introduced herself and the cousin was delighted. They found they had similar tastes and similar ideas and why shouldn’t they? They were family after all. Even their husbands got on well, to the point that the four of them dined and played bridge together regularly.
But then the woman who had originally discovered the connection realized that she had misunderstood a baptism certificate of an ancestor. When she corrected the resulting cascade of misinterpretations within her family tree, she realised that her “distant cousin” wasn’t related to her at all. The friendship, despite being based on a fairy tale, endured. This makes me wonder: If everyone were deluded into believing that some proportion of total strangers were in fact long lost relatives, would we all be blessed with a larger circle of friends?