As if I needed one more hobby/item on my never-ending "to-do" list/excuse to sit in front of the computer for hours on end -- I installed a copy of Family Tree Maker on my computer last night. Within an hour or so, I had input more than 60 names (if not all the birth-marriage-death details that go with them), with many, many more to come.
I've been aware of and interested in my family history since I was a child. Back in 1949, an elderly (childless) relative living north of Toronto passed away, & one of my grandfather's cousins, who arrived from Minnesota after her death to help wrap up her affairs, rescued some old letters from the rubbish heap -- letters that her sister (my great-great-grandmother) & other family members had written to her after they headed west in the late 1870s (to the Red River Valley of the North, settling first on the Canadian side and then over the border in the States).
We're not quite sure what happened to the originals (we believe a distant cousin, son of the original retriever, might have them), but the letters were loaned to and transcribed by a local college in the 1950s, and they've been widely circulated throughout our family. I used them in one of my grade school projects, & my teacher was fascinated by them. They are absolutely marvellous documents -- from a personal history perspective, certainly -- but also a treasure trove of information for anyone researching the history of that area. Example: my great-great-grandmother describes Sitting Bull and his braves dancing under the stars in the streets of the border town where I was born, some 80 years later!
In 1982, my great-aunt passed away, & another great-aunt & two of her daughters came to the small Minnesota town where my grandparents lived to attend her funeral. A day or two after the funeral, we all went up to visit her grave at the cemetery in the even smaller town about 20 miles north, near the farm where my grandfather and his siblings were born & raised. The cemetery is chock full of my grandfather's family members -- his parents, grandparents, some siblings, aunts, uncles & cousins. Thank goodness I brought a notebook & pen with me, because as we walked around, Grandpa & his sister had a story for each headstone, & would explain how each person was related to us. I scribbled it all down, including the names & dates on the markers.
And that's what kickstarted my ongoing passion for genealogy. A few years after that, my grandfather sat down with me one day, beer in his hand, pen in mine, & went through his entire family tree (both sides) -- names of his aunts, uncles & cousins; who they married, where they had lived and what they did for a living, the names of THEIR children, and other memories he had of them. He had a great memory (right up until his death at age 86), & over the years, I've been able to verify that information with documentation from official records and newspapers of the time, and expand on it. When I was newly wed, living in Toronto and unemployed, I spent long hours in the provincial archives and at the library, poring over old newspapers and census records on dusty reels of microfilm. (So far, the furthest back I've been able to go is my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a sergeant in the British Army during the War of 1812, who settled in the Ottawa Valley after the war.) One of my cousins, also interested in genealogy, has printed out & put together a family tree that she brings to each of our extended family reunions (held ever 2-3 years). She tacks it up on the wall & provides pens for people to add corrections & updates. When fully rolled out, it extends about 10 feet (& that's just the tree for my great-grandparents, their nine surviving children, & all their descendants).
Once I got a job, I had much less time for research, although I've always been interested in whatever tidbits of information that came my way. A newly retired friend from work has been bitten by the bug, and ploughing full speed ahead on her own genealogical research. I figured that I too would get back into it more again when I was retired and had more free time. I've resisted the lure of the Internet research, of Ancestry.com and family tree software, because I knew that once I started in again, it would be difficult to draw the line and squeeze one more thing into an already crowded schedule.
Last fall, I connected to a distant cousin through (guess!) a local history blog, & started exchanging information and family photos with her (I got to see a photo of my great-great grandparents for the very first time -- way cool). And that reignited the flame. And so I bought a copy of Family Tree Maker. And here I go again…!
Ironic, isn't it, that a childless person would be obsessed with family history? (although I certainly didn't expect I would remain childless when I started this project) Obviously, my own little twig on the family tree won't be sprouting any new offshoots -- nor will my childfree-by-choice sister's. The branch that includes the two of us and our parents will end with us, and that makes me very sad. Oddly enough, I have noticed that it's often a childless person (often a spinster aunt) who takes on the role of family historian. I suppose some people might say it's because we have more time on our hands for such things (hmph). Perhaps the lack of our own descendants makes us appreciate the extended family ties we have all the more?
So what's the point of all this research, if I won't have any descendants myself to pass it on to? Well, I do it because it's fun. I do it because I love history -- generally and my own family's specifically. I love finding out more about my ancestors -- who they were, what they did, what their daily lives and personalities were like. (I read my great-grandmother's letter describing life on a farm -- pre-electricity, running water & modern appliances -- with 9 children & two hired men to cook, clean, wash & iron for, and no "girl" to help her, & think it's no wonder that she died at the young age of 44.) I do it because the "detective" work & mystery involved appeals to my inner Nancy Drew. ; ) I do it for the rest of the family, at least, the ones who tell me they appreciate it. And hopefully, one of my relatives, perhaps one of my cousins' children, will find it interesting, develop their own passion for it, & take over my stuff when I'm gone -- and carry on the search.
One thing I noticed (although not for the first time), as I input data into my program last night: there are a few branches of the family tree that are so fertile, sprouting little shoots everywhere (multiple generations of teenaged/out-of-wedlock pregnancies, etc.), they make me grind my teeth -- but there are also a sizeable number of childless people -- role models for me --particularly on my mother's side of the family (both sides, and in her generation of cousins as well as mine). Some of these people are married (some of them later in life), some aren't. I have no idea whether being childless was a choice for them, a matter of circumstance (particularly in an age when there weren't the infertility treatment options there are now), or a combination of factors. Is there a genetic factor that's made it difficult for some of the married couples to have children (that I've inherited)? (My mother once said it was because we're all too damned independent & stubborn in this family for anyone to live with us, & I can see that too…!) It's hard to say, because such very personal matters are not normally discussed, certainly not among the people of my mother's generation (although I've heard whispered stories about the other side of the coin, the out-of-wedlock pregnancies from the days before such things were openly spoken about).
On the positive side, most of my childless relatives are well educated, have good jobs and comfortable homes, lots of friends, dote on and are beloved by their nieces and nephews, travel widely. Their lives, as I see them, are rich and full. Maybe it's an illusion? I'm sure that people look at dh & me and think the same things. But it's a comfort to me, knowing that I'm not alone -- that there are other lone twigs out there that won't be adding any new sprouts to the family tree, but are still flourishing, looking great & blooming colourfully while they're here. ; )
Genealogy figures prominently in the last part of "The Mistress's Daughter," which is the next selection in the Barren B*tches book tour on the Stirrup Queens site, and it played a role in my own decisions surrounding adoption (albeit one factor among many). One of my concerns about adopting was how the child would feel, with a mother & an extended family so keenly interested & knowledgeable about their roots & relationships & resemblances to one another, with no or very few other adoptees in the family to relate to. (Out of my whole huge extended family tree, I can think of just one cousin who has adopted, & I only met him for the first time at the last family reunion two years ago.) If I chose a closed adoption or adopted from abroad, how could I deny my child that same knowledge of his or her own genetic family? Could I expect an adopted child to take any interest in the history of a family that was not, genetically, his or her own? How would they view & reconcile my keen interest in my genetic background in the context of our non-genetic parent-child relationship? (For that matter, how would I?)
I'll likely have more thoughts on this subject when we post about the book in a few weeks.