Sunday, July 26, 2009

Crossing My I's and Dotting My T's

I think it is a fact of life that as a genealogist, deciphering people's handwriting can give us fits. To this day there are some letters written by my great-great-grandfather that I can't for the life of me make out. Even more frustrating is to find an old family picture that has been labeled but the handwriting is so illegible that you can't make out if the inscription says "My Mother" or "Mr. Mather." And don't even get me started on census returns... Whenever I come across a particularly difficult bit of handwriting I usually curse and ask myself if anybody (including the person writing it) could make out what it says. I've often wondered how those people could get away with such atrocious handwriting and if they gave any thought to whether it was readable or not.

Well I had my chance to eat crow the other day when I realized that if anyone were to try and read my handwriting who didn't know me, they'd be more than a little stumped. For one, I always write in cursive. I love cursive, I love the loops and swirls and elegance of it and it makes me sad to learn that it isn't being taught in some schools anymore (an increasing trend from what I hear). I think the fact that cursive is a dying art will make it difficult for future genealogist who aren't aware of or use the style of writing. But, I can't and won't bring myself to print unless I have to. I think in cursive, that is where the personality of the writer comes through and is another of the reasons why I love it and (usually) love reading it. There is my great-grandpa Berger who wrote in a long, lean style, sparse on flare but fluid and clear (which I think is fitting given that he was a minister). Then there is his father, also a minister and Union chaplain during the Civil War. Their writing is similar but the elder Rev. Berger's style is far more academic and befitting the era in which he lived (late 1800s). Then there is my father's handwriting which I love, but I think will be a bear to try and read if you aren't used to it. His handwriting matches his quick mind, a mix of print and cursive that you can tell was written in a hurry and with ease. My maternal grandmother has the best handwriting of anyone I known as well as the prettiest. I still have all the cards and envelopes she ever sent me because the handwriting is so beautiful, full of loops and seamless. She is also the first one asked to sign or write anything festive or important because of her great style. Indeed, I think I get my interest in penmanship from her and over the years I've enjoyed playing with her old penmanship books, trying in vain to replicate her style.

However, it is this "personality" in my handwriting which is another reason why I feel sorry for future generations trying to figure out what on earth I'm trying to say. My lowercase f's are unlike anybody else that I know of and my capital j's and h's aren't anything to write home about either. But even though my handwriting is "unique," I know what I am trying to say and so do the people around me, the people that know me and are used to my writing style. I also know what they are saying in their writing and can understand their style because I'm used to it. I think that is probably how it was for our ancestors. Though their writing can make us a little mad at times, it must have been perfectly legible to them and those around them otherwise they would have changed it. And, though it can be a bit illegible at times, it is always full of personality and I think that is worth a little something (even though we have no idea what they are trying to say). Even though I can't always read my ancestor's words, I like to think that I can tell a lot about them based on how they wrote. I can see my grandmother's whimsy and playfulness in her writing with its exaggerated, high cursive style. I can see my great-grandfather's excitment over a new job and my great-aunt's exhaustion from having to run a full house. I like to think my personality or what I am going through at that point in my life, be it happiness or sadness, comes through in what I write and I hope that even if future generations can't understand the words, they can at the very least get a sense of the person behind them.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking along the same lines myself lately. Two generations from now will the average person even be able to read neat cursive? My grandkids are still be taught it in school but with all of the little hand held thingies they have they are much more comfortable typing.

    Personalities really do come through in handwriting and I'm learning something from that too.


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