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The Delicate Act of Reaching Out

The sad irony — in an O. Henry sort of way — is that I had set aside work on the family tree project for four months to finish a deadline.  And the day my schedule cleared was the day my aunt died.

The day after the funeral, I unfolded the family tree and started searching again, this time completely on my own which is an odd feeling.  In the past, when I found a lead, I called my aunt and she confirmed or rejected a name or date.  And now I was finding things, piling up names and dates and addresses on post-it notes that I stuck to the tree, and I tried calling a few people to ask if anything sounded familiar.  But no one knew this information like my aunt or my grandmother.

Suddenly, it felt like I wasn’t just creating a family tree.  It felt like I was counting people; putting them in their place.  I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.  And the only thing I could think about was Holden Caulfield as the catcher in the rye field, and my job was to catch all my family members before they fell off that cliff, into the abyss, never to be remembered again.  If their name doesn’t end up on the family tree, there could be a future generation who doesn’t know that they existed, that they were here, that they were part of a large continuum.

At the funeral, I was able to gather the name of a distant cousin from a woman I met, and I Googled him when I got home, feeling such a strong sense of relief that I had his name.  With that name and a few random facts, I found a Facebook page with pictures, and from there, an address and telephone number.  I had five new people that I caught before they went off the figurative cliff, five new people on the family tree.  And through some fancy searching on a new data base at the library, I found five more.  Five brand new people who hadn’t been on the tree before that point, and with a Google search, I found an obit with a dozen additional names I could add to the tree if I’ve indeed found the correct people.

Josh and I have been debating how to reach out to these new people, hoping that they’ll be the key to giving me the rest of the names that I don’t have for their branches of the family tree.  I tried leaving the man with the Facebook page a message, but since we’re not friends on Facebook, my email went into his “other” folder, and I doubt he’ll ever see it.  I’d really rather not pay Facebook a dollar every time I want to message someone that I’m not connected to, and they’ve done away with the feature where you can provide a message WITH the friend request.  So… how to contact these new people without being too creepy?

Here are the options:

  1. Send a friend request on Facebook and then message them if they accept the request: would you accept a friend request from a stranger?  I wouldn’t.  But perhaps others would?
  2. Write them at work: I have a work address for a few people.  Is it less creepy to get a note at your workplace instead of your home?  For instance, one is a doctor, and I found his office address.
  3. Call them at work: Again, is it less creepy to get a call at the office instead of at home?
  4. Write them at home: For a few people, especially older people, I have a home address.  Would it be creepy to get a letter at home?
  5. Call them at home: Again, for those older people, all I have is a home number.  Should I call and explain who I am and what I’m doing?

And then there was one that I already emailed at work.  I felt like it was fine to spring ahead with an email.  Though he hasn’t written me back yet, so perhaps he was frazzled by this random woman writing him about genealogy stuff.

I don’t think I could sit back and do nothing, which obviously would be the least creepy option, because I’m so anxious to make sure that everyone is counted on that family tree.  So which methods of communication (or any I haven’t considered?) feel like the least creepy/most sane?


1 Papa Bradstein { 02.05.14 at 8:27 am }

Write to them, then call them. My mom did lots of genealogy and found that most people were happy enough to talk about themselves for a bit, make a connection, and learn more about their own family. Some, of course, didn’t respond, and she moved on. Also, it’s worth gauging your audience–who’s most likely to respond to a FB message? Email? A phone call?

My brother also posted much of our family tree online (http://www.mrjumbo.com/contents/genealogy/index.shtml)–easier now than when he did it, hand-coding HTML pages back in the day–and every once in awhile he gets a question from somebody who finds his site while searching for someone he has listed. Usually they strike up a conversation, offer to share research and each moves on, enriching the other’s tree.

And if you’re ever in the neighborhood, try to visit them–announced, of course.

2 Pepper { 02.05.14 at 8:32 am }

I agree about writing first. I would be excited, but also hesitant, to be contacted by a stranger for such a project. So many scammers out there, unfortunately. But a letter gives the recipient time to think things through, perhaps research you, etc, and then respond.

3 a { 02.05.14 at 8:42 am }

I agree with writing first. Everyone likes to get personal mail. And you can present your information for them to digest at their leisure. If you give them a variety of contact info, they can get back to you in their preferred mode.

4 loribeth { 02.05.14 at 11:04 am }

I agree with the others. A letter or e-mail would probably be best. I have contacted people by e-mail and also through Ancestry (I saw their tree online & thought there might be a connection). Sometimes I get a response, sometimes not; sometimes the connection is there and sometimes I’ve got it wrong, but it doesn’t hurt to try. I always try to be very polite and not to press too much. I’ve connected with some wonderful distant cousins — some that I’m in touch with fairly regularly. Some just once in awhile when I have questions. It ebbs & flows. There are several of us who are particularly keen and we cc each other on all our e-mails, so that everyone shares information & documents and stays in the loop. I can go for weeks or months without hearing from one of them, and then someone makes a discovery or has a question, and off we go…! Good luck!!

5 Finding My New Normal { 02.05.14 at 2:08 pm }

I also agree that you should try to write them first before calling. You might catch them at a bad time if you call, or they might think you are trying to sell them something. If they have received a letter first then your phone call won’t be so “out of the blue.”

6 Brid { 02.05.14 at 4:54 pm }

I don’t think it’s creepy. It’s cool. I can’t imagine anyone would be upset or put off that they are being included in a beautiful project that they naturally belong to. And if they do, that’s their prob…
Good luck, Mel. This sounds like a great gift you are giving your kids (and the whole family)!

7 ANDMom { 02.05.14 at 5:02 pm }

I’d say for older people calling or writing is not at all creepy and would be welcomed. For younger people, I’d stick to writing. Give them as much information about yourself/family as you’re comfortable giving so they can get back to you. We once got a call out of the blue from a long lost aunt, and it was only believable once she was able to provide so much information that I could match with what I already knew.

For what it’s worth, when I was doing my husband’s family tree with only one living relative we could reach, I had a lot of luck with both the US census records and myheritage.com. My Heritage is still making connections for me, and we’ve found several distant relatives through other people’s family tree data matching up with ours. Through Ancestry/the national archives, I was able to get specific emigration data including the names of ships some people came over on and their hometowns, so someday I hope to be able to track them back further, but for now I’m stopped at emigration.

8 anony { 02.05.14 at 7:27 pm }

You can still add a comment to a friend request.

9 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 02.05.14 at 8:49 pm }

If Facebook are going to do away with the message feature on the friend request, then EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD should do away with a) setting their profile picture as their cat or b) their child or c) setting their profile picture as a picture of them as a child or d) setting their profile picture as a picture of them wearing a mask or helmet or e) requesting to be friends with people they haven’t seen in at least a decade and a half and barely spoke to even back then.

But that aside.

I’m still sorry you don’t have that go-to person around any more. I’m sorry it happened just as your schedule cleared, as you could have really used some help in catching all these people.

On a more practical note, I think writing to people at work is a great idea. I don’t normally accept friend requests from people I don’t know, unless I can see a lot of mutual contacts (in which case I assume it’s just me being terrible with names) so you need that chance to explain who you are up front. A letter these days is more attention-grabbing than an email, which might get lost or ignored. Of course you can provide all manner of contact details for return correspondence to make it easy and comfortable for them to communicate.

Then I think a follow up phone call wouldn’t be too pushy – people do get busy and have intentions of helping but don’t get around to it. Even in this day and age a two-way conversation has a few things an asynchronous one can’t provide.

That would be my take – be interested to see what others say.

10 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 02.05.14 at 8:57 pm }

Oh, and if no work address available, then home – but I would go with the work address first if I’m reasonably sure they’re going to get it (not sure I’d trust the internal mail of all businesses – but a small doctor’s office should be ok). And putting the tree up online and/or a website about the project and providing a link with the mail might be good so they can see a little more of what you’re doing. With older folk, maybe just including some attached pages/stories as well, in case they’re not into internet, but remembering that most people of all ages can get online now, even if they do sit behind their grandkids at the computer so they don’t have to operate the technical stuff.

11 Queenie { 02.05.14 at 9:16 pm }

I once received such a letter at work. I thought it was kind of creepy. I find FB less creepy, because there I assume everyone is stalking everyone, so it seems more appropriate. And although I am selective in which friend requests I accept, I know lots of people who accept everyone.

12 Turia { 02.06.14 at 7:37 am }

I’m really sorry to hear about your aunt.

I never accept f/b requests from people I don’t know. And I’ve missed a lot of messages because they went into my Other folder.

I would maybe write to them first and give all your contact information and then leave the ball in their court.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.06.14 at 12:06 pm }

I believe that intentions infuse the approach. Whichever way you decide to reach out, I think your heart-centered intentions will be sensed by the recipients.

The O Henry reference is so poignant {{{{Mel}}}}}}.

That said, I think a letter at home would be lovely to receive. Or work. In writing gives people a chance to have a private reaction before responding to you.

14 It Is What It Is { 02.13.14 at 12:21 pm }

No, I do not believe that the pursuit of knowledge about one’s family is creepy. Not one bit.

As I have learned, with the older generation, a letter at home (as in through the mail) is probably a good way to go. I would send it certified, or delivery confirmation, just to be sure it was received, but there is something ingrained about getting actual mailbox mail that will probably ensure it gets read.

With those on FB, I would message them even without sending a friend request. I have done that when I’m not sure the person is the person, but also when I’d like an actual response not just a denial/acceptance of my friend request.

Keep at it!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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