Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Facts, fantasy, mistaken memory and a Greek Orthodox monk in the family.

PHOTO LEFT: Charles Vangelios Ross in 1938.

One of the most interesting aspects of ancestry research is finding that many memories are ‘not true.’ This is hardly surprising given that in certain times in the past some things were simply not discussed, denied or lied about.

But it is a salutary reminder of how ‘fragile’ is our hold on the past and how so much of what we believe to be our family story may be no more than faulty memory, fantasy, deception or downright lies.

How reliable are our memories? Not very, according to research into crime witnesses. And even when we do remember an event, our memory will be constructed from our interpretation of the event. There will simply be things we do not ‘see’ and so will not remember. To a large degree we ‘see what we expect to see’ and no doubt ‘hear what we expect to hear.’ The latter may well be why Rossolimos ended up as Rostopolous. Or it may not.

‘Not seeing what we do not expect to see’ was demonstrated in an experiment where people were shown a video of a basketball game where, at one point, a man dressed in a gorilla suit, crosses the screen. When questioned afterwards, most of the study group, particularly those who were keen sporting fans and therefore more engrossed in the film, did not see the gorilla.

Other studies demonstrate the same human capacity to ‘forget’, ‘not see’ or ‘remember’ incorrectly. During the 1980 American presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan told a heartbreaking story, over and over again of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan was nearly in tears as he recounted the pilot's heroic response: ‘Never mind. We'll ride it down together.’

The only problem is that the story was the exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 movie, A Wing and A Prayer and could not be validated as an actual historical event. The story was ‘true’ but not in a factual sense and yet Reagan’s emotional response was very real. He certainly believed it to be true. Was it a mistaken memory or was it a good story told by a good actor who knew what he was doing?

Whatever the correct answer there was no doubt that for Reagan the story was ‘true’ at an emotional level. For those who believe in the influence of ‘past lives’, and I am very open to the concept because it makes a lot of sense, it could be argued that the ‘story’ resonated with him at an emotional level because it ‘connected’ to a past-life experience.

I can understand how easily a fictional story becomes ‘real’ even without any sort of ‘past-life’ explanation. I remember when I wrote my first novel and found myself later, mixing up the actual memories with the fictional story. Most first novels are semi-autobiographical and like other writers I trawled through my experiences for material with which I could work. I took ‘events’ and people and used them as source material for my characters and my story. What surprised me was how quickly I found myself thinking about my book and having to remind myself that something was ‘fictional’ and not ‘actual.’ My mind was quick to weave the threads together and I can understand how Reagan’s story quickly became ‘fact’ in his mind.

That is why historical records are so crucial to ancestry research because memories are often our least reliable source of information.

I am currently pursuing another ‘memory’ in regard to one of Charlie and Mary’s daughters-in-law, who was supposedly gaoled for procuring abortions. She was clearly a colourful character for her times but is the story true? Riding motorcycles and smoking cigarettes was quite ‘daring’ in the first decades of the 20th Century and her first child is recorded as being born at a prison. But the birth certificate also records her husband as being employed as a guard at the same prison.

Preliminary checks of prison records do not bring up her name and if closer checking fails to reveal it, can I assume that this ‘story’ is fabricated? Probably. Was it because she was a little too free-thinking and independent for the rest of the family and fantasy quickly became ‘fact’ because it ‘fitted’ what they believed her to be rather than what she was?

As I said at the beginning, the further I go in my quest to ‘find Charlie Ross’ the more I become convinced that whatever story I can weave around him and Mary has as much chance as being true as any other.

But on the factual front I have found another ‘thread’ to follow. While I was going through my research material yesterday I came upon something interesting. Well, I thought it was interesting. And I still do.

In the family ancestry chart a David Ross is listed as a Greek Orthodox Monk. David would have been born in the 1940’s and he is the son of Kevin Ross and the grandson of Spiros Andrew Ross. Like me, he has Charlie Ross as his great-grandfather.

I am not sure if he was born in South Australia or Victoria but I have sent an email to the Greek Orthodox Church in South Australia and also to the national body to try to see if I can trace him. I am thinking that if he became a monk in the Greek Orthodox Church that he probably speaks Greek and must have had an interest in Greece and may well have explored the life of his great-grandfather. I am assuming that his choice to join the Greek Orthodox Church has a connection with his ancestry. That may not be the case of course but it is more likely than not.

How wonderful it would be to be able to employ a cousin who speaks and reads Greek on the quest. Here’s hoping.

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