Families in Trees

Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.  It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.  When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.  My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.  Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.  The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”  It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.  A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.  It’s a natural enough mistake.

None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.  How did our parents meet?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  And the generation before that?  Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.  It boggles the mind.  Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.  So many ancestors!  By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.  I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.  Genealogy is a search for meaning.

Both my wife and I share this interest.  Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.  Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.  And that’s what it’s really about: stories.  Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.  As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.  It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.  We didn’t know each other.  If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.  We are all family.


Family Names

Holidays are all about family.  In our society where families, due to jobs, often get spread across states, if not the world, we value holidays as times to get as many as possible of our close ones together.  They’re also rare days when work isn’t required, and true relaxation—a rarity—can take place.  This Thanksgiving break I’ve been reading the proofs for Holy Horror, but I put them aside after anyone else awakes.  We all, I think, come out of it feeling rested.  It has been many years, however, since I’ve had time to work on genealogy.  I don’t write much about it here because most people don’t find other people’s family history to be of interest.  Many of us are nevertheless fascinated by the ancestors without whom we would not be here.

One summer while I was teaching at Nashotah House I became fixated on one great-grandmother.  Nobody in my family knew her name.  I had a first name (a fairly common one), and, adding insult to injury, I grew up with her daughter (my grandmother) living in my home.  Kids, as nature dictates, aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and nobody thought to ask my grandmother her mother’s name before she died.  I found myself stuck at just two generations back.  I made trips to the repository of state and federal records at Madison, spending the summer in a basement room reading through microfiche—talk about ancient history!—trying to find her name.  Nothing.  I wrote to the federal agencies of vital statistics in Washington which gladly cashed my checks but never sent any information.  Later, when the internet began to fill up, I searched for her married name.  Nothing turned up.  I ordered books of gravestone inscriptions from the District of Columbia, where she’d died, but dug up nothing.  One of the cemeteries sends me newsletters now.  When my daughter asked why I was getting them in the mail I told the story.  We began to search online.

I couldn’t believe it.  At least a decade and a half after I’d found no clues, and after many web searches after that, we finally found her.  Someone had entered her on Findagrave.com.  As I pondered the dates, which seemed about right, my daughter pointed out that the site stated she’d been married to my great-grandfather.  My ancestry suddenly grew by two new surnames because her parents were also listed.  I was stunned.  I once calculated that, due to exponential growth, just ten generations back, (eight “greats”) we all have over a thousand ancestors, or 500 couples.  Genealogy could be a full-time addiction.  For the moment, however, I’m pleased to have found a long lost name, and an instantly larger family for this holiday season.