Thursday, March 20, 2008

A twig on the family tree

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 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.

Until now…!

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.


  1. Lori - it always kills me how much we have in common sometimes! I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on growing up and have a huge box of them in the basement. (I also read every Agatha Christie novel in any library I ever went to.) Your inner Nancy and my inner Nancy are also kindred spirits in that I totally groove on genealogy too. I have Personal Historian and Personal Ancestry File programs on my computers. My parents make trips each summer back to their childhood haunts and to the places of their ancestors for family history research purposes. Dh's mom has actually put together story books about her ancestors complete with illustrations and we enjoy reading those often - even puts on a puppet show on occasion.

    A large part of the appeal of blogging is also because of the historical aspect of it - what I write down now becomes the "stories of long ago" of tomorrow.

    I really am not surprised to find you have an interest - it does seem like something up your alley.

    Very enjoyable post!

  2. It's interesting, I've always seen the whole interest in genealogy as falling into two camps and they're not children/childless. It's how one falls on the two sides of memory. I think Josh likes his memory and he would hate to lose it, but he's not the type who keeps scrapbooks or yearbooks or any memory box like thing. Once he goes through something, he doesn't need to keep looking back. I am the polar opposite. And I constantly want to talk about things/people in the past. And not surprisingly, I am into genealogy and Josh isn't.

    I would love that computer program.

  3. "too damned independent & stubborn in this family for anyone to live with" -- hey do you think we're related ;-)
    I have Irish relations who settled in Canada before making their way South to the States. Who knows....?

    Great project. My father's family has done a good job keeping track of folks. Fun to see the big picture.

  4. Have you ever talked with your childless relatives about how/why/when they chose that path?

    I ask because I've been thinking about my own relatives lately, and some things that should have been obvious, have suddenly made me start to think. For example, my grandmother had her first child at 35 and then twins at 40 -- not normal for her time. My mom miscarried twins after I was born. There are 8 years between me and my brother, and my mom has alluded that it wasn't by choice. All these little things that just don't add up quite right.

  5. Hi Loribeth -

    I think we briefly "chatted" on iVillage a couple of years ago...and I stumbled across your blog a while back and have enjoyed reading.

    My husband is very much into genealogy. I would describe it as one of his major interests - he is always online searching census reports, looking for the trail of his ancestors. And I have to admit that I am surprised by that. Not just because he won't have any children to pass this information down to, but because he only has five close living relatives.

    So I was happy to see your post, because it helps me to see beyond my current angst, and gain a little insight into why my husband is so hooked on this quest.


  6. It is a reason why I pause when considering Adoption.

    Heritage and family are very important. I haven't embarked in a family tree -- but think of doing it often. Unfortunately, most of my research would have to be done in other countries and I simply have no idea how to start that process.

    But, your history is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. I'm jealous that you have enough patience to sort through your family tree; I wish I did.

    You pose interesting questions regarding genes and adoptions, and I now feel I have a better understand of why you didn't adopt. I guess the way I look at it (from my outside perspective as neither an adoptee nor an adopter, but from the perspective of someone who always hoped she could adopt if circumstances went that way) is that every family has their issues. There are some kids who look at their family tree and wonder how on earth they could be related to their family when they feel like such aliens. There are kids who try to hide their family tree in shame. I think the lack of familial genes at all is just another issue some families have to work through.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  8. A timely post (though I come to it late), as I spent part of the weekend looking through recent family history compilations. Genealogy also played a role in our decision not to adopt, combined with some details of D.'s family history. D.'s father also is passionate about genealogy. I think often strong emotions drive the search for lineage -- a desire to belong, and to prove that one belongs by creating a work of family history.

  9. I think you're right, Ellen, & you made me think of an angle here that I hadn't before. My father was a banker, & we moved every 3-6 years when I was growing up. I never really feel like I "belonged" anywhere -- & as soon as I started feeling like I did, we'd have to move again anyway -- so it's no wonder that I grew up valuing my "roots" & my family.

    I was born just 20 miles from my grandparents' home in Minnesota, close to where my grandfather's family settled, and although I only really "lived" there briefly as a baby/toddler, I spent a lot of time in that area growing up (summer, Christmas & spring break vacations, etc.). It is probably "home" to me more than any other place on earth -- the one constant in my lifetime of moving around.

    My parents had this conversation awhile back -- "where is home??" -- & plan to be buried there, in the same cemetery as my grandparents, when the time comes.