My thoughts on genealogy as a calming pursuit
Back in 1988, I started shaking my family tree to see what would fall out. I had no idea what I’d find, I was just curious to learn about my heritage. My curiosity was first aroused by an uncle bearing a Civil War-era rifle at a family reunion, by learning that a great-great-grandfather had fought at Vicksburg, and by my mom who brought some proverbial skeletons out of the closet that the old aunts refused to discuss with her. And though I did outgrow the delusion, as a kid I was naïve enough to think that the great River Thames in England was named after my family – we must have been famous!
When I first started this quest, it was all about names and dates and places, seeing how far back I could go. I’d write it all down, from information gleaned from the National Archives, courthouse records, cemeteries, and libraries across the country. There was no Internet in those days, no digital images of records. Back then research meant hunching over a table in a library, poring through deed and probate books and hoping they had indexes, or scrolling through roll after roll of microfilm, grasping for a twig.
Personal computers were just becoming mainstream, and I got my hands on one along with a genealogy program. I’d enter in all the information I’d found, and that was that. After a few years, I came to the realization that, without the source materials to back up all the information, my family tree was nothing more than fiction. I also wanted to be able to point to the documents and say, “Here’s the information that proves what I’m claiming.” And that way, it will all be there when I’m gone off to join the ancestors and someone among the living starts shaking the family tree again.
In addition to names and dates and places, I’ve been adding things like church records, property records, and newspaper articles – things that provide a glimpse into what they were like and how they lived their lives. After all, they were living, breathing people. I often think about the mothers who suffered the tragedy of holding and comforting their dying children. And the fathers who died young, leaving their wives and children to struggle on without them. And the old folks surrounded and being cared for by children and grandchildren – and in most cases surrounded they were, because people didn’t move around as much back then. And for those that did move on, I think about the long journeys they made on foot and by wagon, arriving at their destination to begin hacking their new lives out of the wilderness. And I stop to consider all of my ancestors in the context of what was happening in the country – or the colonies as the case might be – at the time they were alive. That little exercise has had the side effect of making me a bit of an American history buff, which is something you could have never convinced me of if you were telling my 16-year-old self.
I’m North and I’m South, both Rebel and Yank. So I cheer both sides on, albeit after the fact, and oddly, I don’t feel like a hypocrite. No senators, generals, doctors or other lofty careers, just farmers, preachers, teachers, coal miners, housewives, merchants, craftsmen. There were the Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, Southern Baptists, Catholics, even Mormons. Something about those faiths drew my ancestors to their respective churches, so each of the denominations is all right by me – I’ve got all of them in me, and I guess that makes me rather non-denominational. Or at least open-minded. I’m a daughter of the American Revolution many times over, but that doesn’t mean I won’t sympathize with a Loyalist ancestor if I run across one.
Through the years, I’ve connected with long lost cousins from other branches of my tree. I was able to give another eternally-grateful cousin the identity of her great-great grandfather, who was a brother to my own. That was a huge thrill, and we’ve remained research pals on that particular branch. Through other Internet cousins, I’ve obtained photos of ancestors that I’d not otherwise have. I marvel at the beauty of the Internet for this type of research and history exchange. Consider all the boxes and Bibles that contain one-of-a-kind photographs and vital family information that are stored in closets and attics. Before the digital revolution, chances were that those items would be passed down to someone in the next generation to once again be stored in a closet or attic until it was time to pass them on again. Nowadays all it takes is one researcher to scan her box of photos and post them out on the Web, and what was often only a single copy of a photo of ggg-granddad in his Civil War uniform in someone’s attic can now be enjoyed by all of his descendants.
I do have to admit, however, that while the Internet has made the exchange of information and the research of archival material much easier – what with so many institutions now digitizing their materials and placing them online – I still truly enjoy meandering through cemeteries with a sentimental lump in my throat or finding a quiet corner in a dusty courthouse basement to pore over estate settlements and deed books.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that the traditional picture of a family tree, one trunk with limbs and branches, is rather simplistic. A family tree for a genealogist is really more like a banyan tree. Consider how the banyan spreads out over a large area and gets so broad and wide that the limbs themselves develop into their own trunks and roots. But it’s still all one single tree. That’s what a genealogist’s family tree really ends up looking like.
As a hobby – or for me you might call it an obsession – genealogy is great. My husband doesn’t understand it; he tells me when I’m in the thick of some research that I’m playing with dead people, and he can’t figure out why I spend my time in this endless pursuit while so many other demands are being made upon my time. But even with all the hustle and bustle of residing among the living, these particular family members wait patiently and quietly until I’ve got time for them and make no demands of me. There’s a certain serenity in that. I can’t help but think they know they’re not forgotten and that each of them in their turn will get lots of attention from me.
I worry about them even so, and they do tend to preoccupy my mind at times.
Perhaps some of them will come to me in my dreams and give me hints into their pasts. If they’ve been watching me – and sometimes I really feel like they are and that they’re up there cheering me on -they know I’m going to pepper them with questions when I finally meet them one day. But they’ll be ready and waiting for me with huge grins and smiling eyes, and I can’t wait to see their faces and get to know them.
As frustrating as the search can be sometimes, and as discouraging the occasional thought that sometimes it’s all just pointless and futile since so relatively few living folk really seem to be interested, I wonder why I do it, why I’m so drawn to those who went before me. I think it’s because each of my ancestors in their turn shaped the lives of the children they bore, and those children shaped the lives of their children, and so on. They’ve all played a part in making me who I am today. They’re in my bones. They are my blood.