When my Dad retired in the early 80s he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Somehow, he got into Genealogy. A lot of our ancestors on Dad’s side came from the Lancaster/Bethlehem, PA area way back in the mid 1700s. They came from German decent and Germans kept lots of detailed records. Lucky me!
My parents took countless day trips and long weekends to that area. This was way before Ancestry.com made things so damn easy. My parents would go to these quiet old towns and cemeteries all over the Pennsylvania Dutch area. They spent days at a time sifting through dusty old records in town halls and churches.
I had no interest. I remember once after he had attended lecture about some famous Civil War battle as told through one of the Union soldiers that lived it. He came home so excited. He wanted to tell me all about it. (Mom had her limits on how much history she could put up with) I was trapped in the car with him and he just went on and on about what happened to this poor Union soldier. He had been starved and beaten and eventually died there.
Finally, I spoke up. I quietly said, You know Dad, I wish I was that soldier. He was startled. He earnestly asked why I would want to be this poor man. I smiled. I said that if I were him… I would be dead and would not have to listen to all this boring crap. Dad and I had the same dark sense of humor so we laughed a lot about that one.
I was so full of myself. I didn’t listen to any the information he shared. I daydreamed when he told old family stories and thought all the genealogy stuff was just an old person hobby. Dad is gone almost 6 years and now I am totally into it. I wish I had listened. I wish I had asked questions. I wish I would have shared his interest in history. Now he is gone and I have no one to ask. I wasted precious time that we could have spent together. I could have learned so much. Once your family members are gone, so much information is gone forever. All the good stories are gone. Family history, scandals, gossip… Dad took all that good stuff with him. I totally missed my chance.
You might remember that I went out on disability about 3 years ago. I had partially successful open-heart surgery and then a stroke. I felt like my mind was not nearly as sharp as it used to be. My short term a memory is terrible. Cognitive therapy helped. They told me to use my brain in new ways and that I would naturally find ways to adapt. It has been about a year and a half since the stroke. I’m better but I wanted more.
As therapy, I decided to look through my father’s ancestry files. He kept files on everything. Most pictures were labeled. Family tree records were organized and ready to go. I treated myself to an Ancestry.com membership. OMG. There were more records available online than my father could have dreamed of. I can sit at the kitchen table in my pjs and search records all over the country and all over the world. I constantly think how much my father would have loved this. I used his records as my foundation and built from there.
The first thing I found was a scandal involving an ancestor in the 1840s. It involved sex, blackmail and court trials. I was totally hooked after that. When the pandemic started, I was mostly stuck in the house for months, but it was OK because I researched for hours on end. I told everyone how much fun I am having. I think they wondered if I’d had another stroke!
Yes, I have become my father.
I usually work on my ipad so I can take it from room to room. Days fly by. Somedays I make breakthroughs and sometimes I go weeks without much to show. It sort of feels like gambling or being on a treasure hunt. I keep searching, hoping the next search will be another breakthrough. It’s a rush when I actually find something good. I tell myself, ten more minutes and I’ll start dinner, but most times I can’t stop clicking away, tying facts together and wondering what their lives were really like. I’ve got it bad.
I have this research thing down to a system. First, I check the censuses. I can see where they lived and who they lived with. Each census asks different questions. Our first US census asked if you were free or a slave. Later they asked, how many children have you had and how many were still alive? Do you own a radio? Can you read and write? What language do you speak at home? Where did your parents come from? What was the highest grade to completed in school? What do you do for a living and how much money do you make? I notice that often people marry their neighbors. People with the same trade often live in the same neighborhood. I try to collect and post pictures of my people. It makes them come alive for me. Little by little these people reveal themselves to me.
I get attached to some of them. I see them show up on their first census as maybe a 5 year old child. Ten years later, he may already be working or gone from the family home. I know that in another 10 years he will have started his own family. I find old newspaper articles describing all the details of their wedding. She may have worn a dress of blue taffeta and her baby sister was her maid of honor. Often I know that before the next census, 2 of their children will die. I see when they lose a brother to war or a sister to childbirth. I understand why widowers remarried so quickly. Many families had 8-16 children to take care of. As they get older, I see that them now living with their adult children or as a boarder with another family. I can even read their will. I know that you disowned your oldest son and that you took good care of your wife. I even know which son got your good saddle and how many cows you had. Then there is the death certificate. How did they die? Heart attacks and strokes were common. Was it a suicide? Were they buried? If so, where?
The last thing I look at is a site called Find-A-Grave. (Yes, its really called that.) People all over the world go to cemeteries and take pictures of gravestones. They post them on this site along with the inscriptions. (Even bigger nerds than I am!) At least I don’t have the genealogy bug that bad! (Yet!)
One day I sat in my kitchen looking at Jolene’s ancestor’s gravestone in Sicily from the 1820s! I recently researched a great aunt 3 times removed. I had followed this woman through her life. In the end, it was her headstone of two intermingled hearts that really touched me. Her husband on one heart and her on the other. I felt the love for one another they had throughout their lives and even into death.
I felt like I lost a friend.
It’s a strange feeling to get to know all these people and to know most all the things that will happen to them and their families. Sometimes it makes my heart ache. Some die so young. For some it’s a disease that we could treat easily today. Lots of people were lost in fires. One old lady even fell out the window. I feel like my research and documentation make these people live again, but just in our hearts this time.
Why am I telling you all this?
I’m sharing this because I feel like my ancestors are teaching me through their stories.
Life is short.
For some it is incredibly short. I read once that our entire lives are expressed in that little dash that goes between our date of birth and our date of passing. Just that little dash. My Italian grandfather used to say that the mark you leave on this life is the same as the hole you leave when you pull your hand from a bucket of water.
Take chances. Failure is the best learning experience you will ever get.
Work hard. You really will get ahead.
Marry for love. Its all that matters in the end.
Problems come and go. Don’t hold on to them too tight.
Life is fragile. Be careful with it.
Saving money is important but be OK knowing that your children will just blow it all.
Every family has black sheep and scandals. Who cares! Live your life!
I am pretty confident that your great grandchildren will probably not even know your maiden name or the town you came from. Share your story with them. You might not get another chance.
Everything is temporary. Good things. Bad things. It’s all temporary.
Put your iphone on record, make a couple drinks and ask your Gradmom about her life. How did she meet Grandpop? What were her parents like? How did they get here? Where did family names come from? Are you happy? Do you have regrets? That recording will become a family treasure. Trust me.
One last thought.
Tell everyone you love how much you them. Tell them a lot.
They will remember it and they will remember you.
Your dad sounds a lot like my dad! Oh, the Civil War battlefields…I’ve been to so many of them. He passed away in 2014, and I so wish I could have a few more talks with him about family history – and about all of those battlefields!
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