One problem with researching family history is unearthing the stories of people you wish you could have met. It is most frustrating when there is so little left of them that their bittersweet shadows–“he was the nicest, gentlest man” or “she made us laugh and laugh”–are just enough to make you even sadder that no one remembers enough to tell you more.

Right now, today, but also more generally, I feel this way about two of my great-grandparents, my mother’s mother’s mother and my mother’s father’s father. They both died before I was born, and nothing any of the people who loved them have been able to tell me about them has been satisfying.

Unearthing the monsters is more satisfying, maybe, because it’s easier to feel okay about making up your own details to fill the gaps. And also because you don’t have to mourn never having known them.

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