It’s time for me to wind down the genealogy research for a while. By the looks of my calendar, I won’t have the time it takes. Goodnight’s high school activities begin tomorrow even though school doesn’t begin until after Labor Day. Besides, the clock is ticking down on my summer break as well.
As I tuck away all the papers I gathered on my Heritage Hop, Skip, and Jump Vay-cay and save all my digital family notes, I think of how much I enjoyed this summer and how much more ‘rooted’ it makes me feel. I doubt that I could recite the names, birth orders, spouses, children and get many of them correct, but that wasn’t the point anyway. I can look back at my notes anytime I want to for that information. For me, the point of my summer research was to go back as far as I could with ancestors in the United States and get a name of a village/town of origin from the ‘old country’.
When I began my research, I thought there was only one ‘old country’. It turns out there were three. That paradigm shift was easy for me.
I found some humor in my ancestry. One of the females married twice. She wasn’t widowed at the time of her second marriage. While hiking through one of the cemeteries, I found her tombstone and BOTH of her husbands were buried with her.
I found stunning sadness as I noted one death after another within the summer and fall of 1904. There was an epidemic that swept the area where those ancestors were living at the time and took the lives of five family members, three in the same household within three weeks of each other.
I found honor and integrity on my family tree. There’s very little to go on, of course, when one looks back so far, but I ran across an article that labeled one of my ancestors ‘successful and upstanding, interesting to visit with as one of the oldest remaining founders’ of the town he and other first settlers at the same time helped establish. I found honor in the work that my ancestors did just by virtue of doing what they needed to do to support the families they brought across the sea. I loved reading the censuses to see what was listed for their work. There was nothing haughty there. Each one had to put in a good day’s work.
I’m a bookish and nerdy grandmother and when I began my research I knew it would give me something to do to keep my mind active this summer. It turns out that my heart was kept active as well. I wear my heart on my sleeve as obviously as any of the purple clothing I own, so I found myself moved to tears with each new discovery: the names of ships on which my ancestors sailed, the numbers of babies who died, the son of one ancestor who has no descendents because he died on the voyage, unmarked graves in cemeteries where I have trod before without knowing someone else was there, reading death certificates, and the lovely, lovely photo of my paternal grandmother holding a baby – my dad! The photo makes looking back in time so much more tangible.
I learned that record-keeping is not perfect. I learned that censuses are not perfect. The perfections or imperfections varied with the education of the enumerators as well as the throngs being counted. I learned that spelling is not perfect. I learned that one can abbreviate surnames on tombstones! I learned the devastating historical loss it was when the 1890 US Census Population Schedules were destroyed by fire and water damage in the 1921 Commerce Building basement fire in Washington, D.C. I learned that marriages are not perfect. I learned that family histories are not perfect. I learned that gravestones can sink to a frustratingly sad level for someone four generations beyond the one interred who hikes the cemetery to read a stone. I learned that, while anecdotal histories don’t always give enough details, they are endearingly accurate enough as points where one can begin research. For what mysteries that remain, I have learned patience and acceptance that I will never know it all. I learned about cholera, typhoid fever, typhus, tuberculosis, and mental fragility in the aftermath of emigration from a terribly unkind ‘old country’. I learned that, for the most part, we take tender care of our loved ones either by how we speak of them, or how we hold our tongues when their stories would paint a less than dignified image of what was really beyond their human control. I learned that impatience can turn quickly to generous kindness and curiosity when one knocks on the door of a parish house, bothers the pastor at a quiet time in the afternoon, and asks to see the inside of the church where the great-grandparents of the old lady making the request were married. I learned about many groups of people dedicated to providing information that makes genealogical research much easier that it has ever been. I learned about ‘souls’. Reports of epidemics or accounts of devastating fires did not describe “victims” of the maladies. The linguistic choice was to mention ”souls lost to cholera” or “souls lost in fires” or “the number of souls who inhabited a village.” Is it formal? Yes. Could it be off-putting to one who attributes the word to a formal religious connotation? Certainly, but I liked the archaic use of the word. I learned about the histories of a handful of towns and unincorporated villages that I will surely visit again.
Speaking of kindnesses, I have been sitting in a coffee shop on this rainy afternoon while Goodnight went to a movie in a theater a block away. The coffee shop is closing for an early evening and the manager asked me if I would like to take a pastry. “I don’t like to throw them out,” he said. I offered to take one. He meant the entire box he had sitting on the counter! He closed the box and handed it to me before I had time to protest.
I go back to work tomorrow, my time-travels complete for now. I’ll take the box of pastries with me and share with my co-workers. They should go well with all the stories we share about our summers away from the campus.