Seattle 1978

Seattle 1978

Saturday, April 30, 2011

"I stalk dead people and hope to connect with their descendants on Facebook"

Even when I was very young, I had an interest in life stories. I recall in elementary school my favorite books were by Laura Ingalls Wilder and biographies of Helen Keller. Fast forward to when my son was in fourth grade in 1997 and assigned a cultural heritage project for class. My daughter was less than a year old at the time. I wanted to keep a consistent schedule for her which meant I was stuck at home during her two hour naps. I was a newbie to the Internet and decided to poke around to see what I could learn about my husband’s and my family history to help with my son’s school’s project. I thought it would be fascinating to discover life stories of people I was related to that might be just as interesting as the pioneer life tales I loved in “Little House in the Big Woods”.
Even back in 1997 it wasn’t hard to add new pieces to the family puzzle using Internet searches. Early sites I remember using were GenForum, Cyndi’s List , and US GenWeb . It was even before the Mormon’s came on-line to the public at Family Search. From my local library I checked out and downloaded a CD Rom of an early version of Family Treemaker. (It didn’t take long before I purchased my own software and have purchased several upgrades since). I was giddy when I discovered a descendant of my Wales born great grandmother’s half-brother just living a few hours north of me in Canada. He seemed as excited as me when I called him from out of the blue to explain who I was and we eventually made arrangements to meet. I found mailing address sites and postally mailed dozens of letters to all the Grenfells I could find living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan because I could learn more about my great, great grandmother from them and could barely contain myself when one came back starting with the sentence “BINGO You have hit the JACKPOT.” I corresponded with him for several years and learned more family stories and connected with additional relatives before he sadly died.

I know many of my friends and family think it odd that I can get so caught up in genealogy. Family history tends to be a passion of the retired and I’ve got a while to go before I reach that milestone. In addition to the above mentioned distant Grenfell cousin that died, there have been a few others I was so glad I connected with before they passed away but I still have regrets of all the stories I didn’t get. Genealogy can definitely be an obsession and sometime I don’t really understand my own drive to turn over every stone to see what lies underneath. And it can be challenging to stay focused. I could absolutely relate to Clue Wagon's "the names have been changed to protect the inocent" blog post here. There is so much to discover! And it always leads to other avenues to investigate!

I have had my genealogy addiction under pretty good control the last couple of years. But Facebook has introduced me to another way to find distant cousins. I absolutely love it but feel it impossible to keep up with everyone I would like to. NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are was a show I avoided for awhile while I kept my obsession in-check but several people kept telling me I would love it. They were right. The first one I DVRd, I intended to get some laundry done while I watched it with one eye. Well, the laundry didn’t get done and I’ve watched every episode since. I definitely enjoy seeing others just as fascinated by the people and stories of those who came before them. As a pretty-darn-blessed-American, I am in awe of all that my children’s fore-mothers and fore-fathers endured. Farming on rocks, mining in dangerous conditions, deaths of their children, difficult ocean voyages, harsh winters, destructive fires and rampant illness to name a few hardships. I feel very lucky for those that survived long enough to give birth to my children’s ancestors! And I want to thank them by remembering them. I hope to share some of their stories here in the future.


Matt said...

Great post. I started getting into genealogy when I was about twelve, and for awhile it really consumed me. But I think I was hoping that I was really a prince. When that didn't pan out, I left it and my uncle took over. He started with my little paper notebook, but he had a computer, and over the years he amassed a huge database that now has thousands of names and can account for just about everyone in the United States with any version of my unusual last name. It used to be about the blood for me, the bloodlines and the continuity of genetic lines, but since my wife and I were an infertile couple, and our family is an adoptive family, this all means a lot less to me now. My daughters do not have the blood of my ancestors. But what is still of interest is the stories, the wonderful stories of how life was lived in the past. What you wrote: " I still have regrets of all the stories I didn’t get" is how I feel any time any old person passes through to the beyond, whether in my lineage or not. All those stories. I hope somebody got the stories.

Jana said...

Thank you for the comment, Matt. The unique last names are a lot of fun to research. I tried to link all those with my maiden surname from a town called Lelant in Cornwall where one of my great grandfather's was born.

I love to learn the stories. I wish some of my and my husband's ancestors had kept journals but I haven't been lucky enough to discover any (I get pretty jealous when I learn of someone who has those from generations past). I have heard from people who've said, "I remember my father/grandfather used to get letters from your grandfather" - I so wish they had kept those letters because that would be awesome for me to read - the next best thing to a journal. This particular grandfather who kept in touch with relatives developed Alzheimer's when I was in Junior High - another sorrow of mine that I didn't ask more questions before his memories disappeared forever.

Hedley Robertson said...

I never thought it was odd that you got so caught up in genealogy! I am actually glad that someone in the family is taking all the time and hard work to document where we came from. I believe society is losing this rearward looking perspective in their rapidly accelerating lives... but connecting with the history and the hardships of the past would go a long way towards folks keeping today's challenges in perspective.

Jana said...

My dear Hedley - you have made my day! Thank you!