Seeking, finding, obsessing: an introductionPosted: November 17, 2009 | |
I am one of those genealogy addicts. You might run from us at parties. I understand.
Worse, the addiction has grown beyond mere family trees. In trying to uncover my ancestry, I’ve become addicted to uncovering history lessons on topics that fascinate me, if not the rest of my household.
It started, as often happens, with the birth of a first child. When my older daughter came along, it (finally) occurred to me get serious about exploring my father’s family tree. I knew only a little, and none of it from Dad, who had died of a heart attack when I was 23.
I told myself this new hobby was for the sake of my new daughter, who might eventually wonder about a grandfather who was only a name on a photograph. I thought learning about Dad’s family might bring him close to me again. I wondered about Dad’s early heart attack, and whether genealogy would uncover useful information about genetic risk.
A dozen years and one more baby later, I’ve collected lots of little answers, but no bombshells. I have amassed a decent collection of birth, death and marriage certificates about my kin, a mostly Irish bunch who lived in Brooklyn, Troy and Watervliet, NY.
I seriously doubt I’ll ever find a long, dramatic last will and testament, or a complicated, informative land transfer file.
Sheesh, I have yet to reconstruct my dad’s killer potato salad recipe.
But I have discovered the joys of rooting around for the details of where my ancestors lived, where and how they worked, what their favorite dishes might have been.
It’s harder to do this for ordinary people, of course. Nobody chronicled the comings and goings of working-class people like my ancestors. A lot of context has been lost. But a lot of details are still sitting around waiting to be discovered.
I’ve gotten sensitive to what I call “history in plain sight”: hints of the past right under our noses, if we knew what we were looking at. Why is that funny brick wall sitting out in the middle of nowhere? What kind of people worked in the old mill that was converted into condos? And what is that dramatic cliff face doing in the middle of a quiet suburb, anyway?
I am also fascinated by old recipes, weird census data and archaic medical terminology. And tombstones. I really like tombstones.
If you like this kind of stuff too, pull up a chair and stay a while. If you don’t, no hard feelings. Although the next time you start joking about how to define a second cousin twice removed … I just might tell you. Serve you right, too.