I am an amateur genealogist and have been for over 30 years. Not many people know that, nor do I talk about it often, because it is a personal undertaking where few people understand the underlying reason. Frankly, I do not tell a lot of people about my ingrained desire to climb the family tree because I am often met with glazed eyes or responses of, “Oh, my grandmother does that.” It is often thought of as an “old person’s” activity. Yet, researching one’s family tree is less about gathering names and dates to bore family members at the next holiday feast, and more about discovering the figurative DNA that makes us who we are. I don’t climb trees to discover them; I climb trees to discover me.
The genealogy bug was first introduced to me when I was 14 by my older sister after she had her first child. She wanted to gather information on the family to pass along to her fresh-faced cherub, and I found interest in filling in the missing spaces of a pedigree chart. At first, it was a quest to gather as much information as I could, like a scavenger hunt where the first person to return with these, say, 15 items, wins. Names, dates, and places filled in the blanks and rendered my scorecard nearer and nearer completion. At my age at the time, that’s how I understood the process. Over time, however, I found stories tucked within those names and dates. I found stories of strength and sorrow, gumption and grand gestures, written between the lines of each pedigree chart and family group sheet.
The stories became a touchstone, a place to reference when events in my own life wobbled off-kilter. Standard mantras developed which ran on replay in my head whenever I needed a kick in the pants, like, “My grandfather did not get on a boat at 19 and sail across the big blue ocean so I could be doing mediocre work,” or “If she can walk several blocks in the rain to a voting booth so she could be the first woman in her town to cast a ballot, I can find the time between take-out lunch and errands to get there myself.” The stories of my family tree research are not just tales read in the pages of a book which detail someone else’s history. They are the stories that detail my history. Their strength becomes my strength. Their inner fortitude in times of adversity becomes the basis for me focusing on doing the same. Their blood is my blood. Simply, if they can do it, so can I.
All the best stories are truths. Whenever I read a fictional tale, I know that these words, while “made up” in their sequence, are based in someone’s truth. When I look at a list of names, dates, and places for a family living long ago, I see naming patterns that speak of tradition and respect. I see dates that coincide with historical events and imagine how the event of my family fit into the event of world history. When I see the places on a map draw out the route of their lives, I wonder about the trigger that made the family leave one place for another. When I look at the series of births and deaths in their chronological order, I see the story of a family’s highs and lows, and I imagine their reaction to each.
Whenever I need a boost to fuel my own strength, I look to the stories of my genealogical connections because that is the fuel that is already in me. It’s in my bones. Their stories are my stories, and through my discovery of their stories, and dedication to collecting and retelling of them, I hope to reassure them that their lives mattered. Their stories mattered, and their time on this earth made a difference.
All the stories that came before me are the reason I stand where I am today. Whether a person likes where they stand today or not is irrelevant to the significance of that sentiment. What is significant is understanding the grand connection of time and tales, and how it plays in our lives. I climb trees not to discover the tree. I climb trees to discover myself.