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A French Family's Old Documents

Why You Cannot Always Trust a Document

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We research, we beat the keyboard, we travel far and wide to trace our ancestors. Finally, we find the documents that prove, absolutely prove, without doubt, our lineage, and who our ancestors were. Proof? Certainty? In truth, they are very elusive.

Jokes about postmen and paternity aside, there are many times when we simply cannot know, even if the documents seem to say that we do. Documentary evidence simply does not reveal human weakness or heroism or canniness or, as in the tale we are about to tell, rather untoward expedience.

Some years ago, a lady we shall call Paulette and her husband, whom we shall call Antoine, lived peaceably in southern France. Antoine was a farmer. Paulette was a cook in the local school. They had four children, all still in school, and Paulette doted on the youngest, a boy. To earn a bit more (in order to spoil the boy, neighbours whispered) Paulette took on extra work. She began to clean house for an elderly gentleman of wealth, the local grandee, whom we shall call Robert.

Paulette was a woman of thunderous energy and did a fine job of housecleaning and elderly care. Robert was appreciative. Robert was so appreciative that he told Paulette that he wished to give her his money and land. Sadly, he could not. He had adult children who, though they never visited him or cared for him, would complain if he gave away their inheritance. Paulette wanted to help Robert in his desire, so she and Antoine came up with a plan. When they told it to Robert, he was thrilled and agreed.

Paulette and Antoine divorced. Paulette and Robert married. Paulette and Antoine continued to live in their home with their four children. Robert moved in and transferred his property to his wife. He also adopted her youngest boy. He rewrote his will, leaving the maximum amount allowed to his wife and new son. The only fly in the ointment, for Paulette and Antoine we suppose, is that Robert, twenty-five years later, is hale and hearty at the age of ninety-seven. The children have long since grown up and left this remarkable ménage. Antoine is not well; he has a bad heart. Paulette herself has battled some of the diseases and disabilities of age and -- some say -- leans more on Robert for care now than he once leaned on her. 

What will the documents show? There will be a marriage registration for Paulette and Antoine. There will be the  birth registrations of their children, one of which will show Robert as the father. There will also be a divorce and the registration for Paulette's remarriage to Robert. One day, there will be -- heaven knows in what order -- death registrations for Antoine, Paulette and the robust Robert; and there will be a will of Robert's. There may even be a law suit at the instigation of Robert's other children. A genealogist reading these documents years later would assume a much different story from the odd reality, and might never discover that Robert was not the father of Paulette's son.

For all our research, how little we truly know.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy