Unearthing the Family
Like many children of a certain age, the ChickieNob is obsessed with American Girl dolls and all their accompanying paraphernalia, especially the books. The books begin with a family tree for the girl, usually containing the characters you’re about to meet in the story. Okay, I’m making an assumption with that; I haven’t actually read any of the American Girl doll books. I don’t need to. She speaks about them incessantly. And she’s slowly morphing into Rebecca with her cross-stitching, but that is a post for another day.
The Wolvog’s second camp is an all-day camp, whereas the ChickieNob’s second camp is a half-day camp, and it is the first time they have truly been apart for an extended period of time since birth. This fact did not hit the ChickieNob until the front door closed on the first day, and her brother got in the car and drove away, leaving her behind. I suggested that in the hours we had to ourselves, we should work on the American Girl-style family tree that she has been wanting to construct. Come on, I’m just as much fun as your same-age brother, kid!
Right after the twins were born, I constructed a family tree for Josh’s grandmother’s side and his grandmother helped me with her husband’s side too. I already had one for my mother’s side that my cousins and I constructed years ago with the help of our grandparent’s generation. I thought this would be easy peasy lemon squeezy, and I was so confident that we could finish this in a few days that our first order of business was to purchase a large sheet of paper and disposable rapidograph pens with archival ink. Instead of starting, we went to Starbucks to gaily drink frappuccinos and congratulate ourselves early on a job well done.
The next day I looked at the papers and realized that we were missing a lot of people. Like A LOT of people. We were missing people’s spouses and children. We were missing everyone from my father’s and Josh’s father’s families. I told the ChickieNob that this wasn’t a problem; I’d just call up some family members and have them fill in the blanks.
I started with my great-aunt who couldn’t answer any of my questions, but told me to contact a relative I had never heard anyone mention. I mean, literally, she pulled this name out of thin air, promising that this woman would be able to help. So I called this stranger in California and introduced myself and had the most amazing conversation for over an hour with this woman whose grandmother was my great-grandmother’s sister. It was like finding an unopened letter from my grandmother years after her death. It was such a profound loss when my grandmother died a few years ago; not just in terms of missing the person, but missing the information she contained. And here was this person who not only knew my grandmother but was happy to spend an hour on the phone telling me stories about their collective childhood.
I didn’t want to get off the phone with her. I actually wanted to fly across the country and sit down in her living room and burst into tears. But I thought that might make me look a little crazy.
And I had to make dinner and she had to pack, but she promised to send me more information when she was finished with a trip, so I moved on to my father who couldn’t plug in any holes that I had for his family, since I could list everyone up to my great-grandparents on my own. So as he went to ask his family members if anyone knew any other names, I went online and found my two great-grandfather’s draft cards. I think that was the turning point for me, when it went from being a lark to an obsession.
The ChickieNob by this point had ditched me to go play dolls, and I turned to Loribeth to grill her in all things genealogy, deciding that we now needed family tree software to keep track of things. I got in contact with one of my mother’s cousins — a man who has never met me before — and placed the plans for our phone conversation on the calendar as if it were akin to a birthday party. I was birthing myself and discovering where I came from; who I’m connected to in this world. Josh contacted his family members, and I continued to Google, finding relatives across Facebook whose names I hadn’t even known prior to this point.
It has become all I feel like doing lately. The ChickieNob is happy enough to sit at the table and draw while I sketch out chunks of our family tree on taped-together pieces of paper. I think she is losing hope of me completing her wall-hanging despite the fact that I keep telling her that this is a rough draft, that I’ll have it finished in no time.
It has brought the topic of adoption to the forefront of my mind. On one hand, I’m finding that I’m focusing less on physical characteristics and more about undigging a story. At first I only copied the front of each of my great-grandfather’s draft cards which contained their address and signature and place of employment. I went back to make a copy of the back of the card which listed height and hair colour. And yet, how are we not focusing on genetics when we look at a family tree? It made me understand (a bit; I don’t think someone not going through it themselves could fully understand) the loss inherent in adoption, even while seeing that a family tree is comprised both of genetic relations and people who marry in, who take the family tree on wonderful, divergent paths.
And I’m going to be frank; I am completely unable to let this project go, but it is also making me incredibly sad. Like “lie on the bed on my side while facing Josh and talking about how our great-grandchildren will one day think of us only in terms of a story they discover for their own children” sad. That we’ll be dead and gone, and our families will keep going on without us. And if it isn’t that thought bringing me down, it is missing people so badly that I visit documents containing their names even when I know all there is to know from those documents. I looked up my grandfather’s family on an old census, finding his name and his brother’s written below his parents, his sister not yet born, and my throat ached thinking about my grandfather who has been gone for years, and yet on this screen, he is trapped in youth, like a butterfly in glass. A pause in time.
Genealogy is such a bizarre puzzle, dealing with human pieces and shifting them around to make them fit. It is so easy to forget these people were once alive, once here, at one time more than just their name and birth date and death date. Even though I can imagine the looks on their faces when the ships docked in the ports, bringing them away from everything they knew, placing them in my strange land.