They Don’t Look Like Them But That’s Who They Are

For thirty years an image of Mimke and Antje Habben floated around in my head. After all, when thinking about or researching them, picturing an actual human seemed preferable to visualizing the words “Mimke” and “Antje” floating around in the air above my head. The images were not really based upon anything in particular and I cannot remember when I first had them, but they were there. Antje was a shorter and extremely skinnier version of my grandmother–Antje’s great-grand daughter. And Mimke? He was an earlier version of Grandma’s brother Ed who was always clad in pair of bib overalls. Always. The difference was that Mimke would have been wearing the 1870s version of that attire.

And then I found the picture and my vision was replaced with reality. Antje was not a skinnier version of my grandmother and Mimke was not wearing bib overalls. I was glad to have the picture. I was excited beyond belief. It’s not often one finally locates a picture of people when they have been the object of research for thirty years.

But I had to let the visions of them in my head go.

Reality had a different picture of them for me to see.

Much like it is with actual research and the things we find in various records. Sometimes we have to let the mental pictures of our ancestors go. In fact, effective research requires that we do our best to put assumptions about our ancestor aside while researching. We do not want those assumptions to cloud our research or cause us to only look for and read those records that confirm our preconceived vision. It is not possible for us to find the most accurate written “picture” of our ancestor if we determine what is true about them before any records have been located.

We have to put our assumptions aside, locate as many records as we can and interpret those materials in the relevant time and place.

Because it’s the accurate picture of our ancestors that we want. Or at least the most accurate picture we are able to obtain.

When our research is complete, the “real picture” may bear some resemblance to the one we have in our head. Or it may bear just a little bit in a way that we would not have imagined.

Like when I look at that picture of Antje I don’t see a skinny version of my Grandmother–I see a face that bears a subtle resemblance to my mother. And when I look at Mimke, I don’t see anything that remotely resembles my Uncle Ed.

I see my nose right there on Mimke’s face. That infamous Habben nose staring back at me five generations and over one hundred years after the fact.


12 thoughts on “They Don’t Look Like Them But That’s Who They Are

  1. Lisa Bowman says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I am so glad that I am not alone in conjuring up images of ancestors for whom I have not yet discovered photos. The reaction I had upon finding a photo of a set of my 2nd Gr Grandparents was similar to yours. “That’s them. Really? THAT’s them?” She turned out to be a very slender, diminutive in stature – petite, lady and HE, slender but muscular [he WAS a Constable in the South, but was not the hulking bulk that I fancifully imagined] and he was… not as tall as I’d imagined he’d be – at least compared to his wife, my gg Grandmother who I figured to be around 5′ – give an inch or two either way but probably leaning toward the shorter end of the tape measure! – after seeing her in a photo with her siblings and she is the shortest one there. The surprises are better than the fantasies!

  2. Finding photographs of ancestors is still one of my favorite experiences in family history research. I’m always on the lookout although not always optimistic. Am I correct in understanding that you found the picture uploaded to Family Search?

  3. Sharon Grow says:

    My great grandfather had always been blamed by the women in my family as being the cause of our being “vertically challenged ” and very round. Through Ancestry I received a photo of these great grandparents. What a surprise!
    He was tall and lanky. She , as we say in the family “was 7′ tall squished down to 5′. We also got our double chins from her.

  4. I kept going back and forth with your couple’s names. The picture appears to be taken in Illinois. My 2xgreat-grand parents, in Germany, were Hermannus Hemken (1849-90) and Antje van Ohlen(1848-?) (their daughter married Georg Jasper).

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