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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.


1 KeAnne { 07.23.12 at 9:34 am }

I like to think that our blogs will help make us more three-dimensional to our descendants. Pre-blogs, we were lucky if we had a faded black & white picture of great-grandparents and others; now your descendants can have your thoughts and really feel like they know you.

2 loribeth { 07.23.12 at 9:38 am }

The thing about genealogy is that your family tree is never, ever DONE. There is always another generation back that you can explore, always another lead you can chase, always another piece of information to add to the puzzle. I’ve always said I think I like it partly because it appeals to my inner Nancy Drew. ; )

Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing all this when I will have no living descendants to pass it along to. I’ve noticed that many of the genealogists & family history keepers I meet are also childless women. I do it because it’s fun and because I like learning more about the people who came before me (& just how far the current generation extends — how many relatives I have that I’ve never even heard of before). I look at it as my contribution to the family tree — if I can’t extend the tree through biology, I’ll do it through research. ; ) I figure when the time comes, I can pass along my stuff to another younger relatives who’s shown some interest — or, at worst, donate all my stuff to a local genealogical society. The more we preserve now, the easier it will be for future interested generations to discover.

Your thoughts about genealogy & adoption reminded me about the family letters that first piqued my interest in genealogy — written by my great-great grandmother & members of her family in the 1870s-early 1900s, back to her parents & sister (M.) in Ontario. (I’ve written about them on my blog — click on “genealogy” in the “Labels” section in the right-hand column.) M. lovingly preserved them — handstitched many of the earlier letters into a booklet. She was a childless spinster, & the letters almost got thrown out after her death in 1949, but were saved from the rubbish heap by one of my grandfather’s cousins, who had come to wind up her affairs.

The kicker is that this childless spinster aunt, this woman to whom our family history owes so much, may or may not have been related to us by blood. I can’t quite remember how I figured it out, but I realized that there was a 22-year age gap between my greatx2 grandmother & her sister, and that her parents would have been quite old (like, 50ish) when she was born. Not impossible, but… When I was first starting my research, I got a letter from my grandfather’s oldest brother, who died shortly afterward, but wrote, tantalizingly, “About M., she was Grandma’s foster sister. No more said. You see in the letters that Grandma wrote, if she came to live with them (after her parents’ deaths), she’d be treated like the rest of her children.”

I managed to get a copy of M.’s birth certificate, which lists my great x3 grandfather as the father — but an entirely different woman than his wife as the mother (!). I’ve also found the family in an 1861 census in which there is a five-year-old M. (M. was supposedly born in 1860?? — perhaps the census taker meant five months??) — but with a completely different last name??

I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth. And I’m not sure it really matters, although it’s one of those mysteries that makes genealogy fun. I’ve also found several instances in my family where one or both parents died (not uncommon in those days), and the children were brought up in stepfamily situations or by extended family members (grandparents, aunts). Even back then, the family unit was more flexible than we sometimes think it was.

Sorry if I’m rambling. As you know, this is a topic I love. ; )

3 Ren { 07.23.12 at 12:06 pm }

I just received an email from the new wife of the only cousin on my dad’s side. We were at her wedding on New Year’s Eve. She was visiting with my parents and wanted my help with the family tree (just because I can remember the ages of our second cousins)

Now I want to call relatives, and search online, and see what I can find out. I love genealogy.

4 Io { 07.23.12 at 12:42 pm }

I love what KeAnne said. It’s so true – you will live on through your writing. I am sure your decedents will some day love reading through what you have written. My dad recorded his grandmother and her sister telling stories about their lives not long before they passed away and I used to love sitting and listening to it as a child, their lilting voices all crackly on the tape.
As for adoption, there is still a part that is important – even if you don’t have these people’s genes, it’s not like genes are the only thing you pass down. You pass down jokes and traditions and values and antique cupboards.

5 Alexicographer { 07.23.12 at 12:53 pm }

There was recently a This American Life story posted about the kind of story (sort of) that Loribeth mentions, above. It’s called Act One. Make Him Say Uncle, and you can find the transcript here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/289/transcript . As a member of the ALI community, I found Ira Glass’ characterization of someone who wasn’t the genetic father of the person whose social father he was as “not your dad” annoying, though I recognize it is shorthand for information the protagonist found out over time and was, um, startled by.

As for living on … my grandmother died when I was 13 and I’m sad I never knew her as an adult myself. But she lives on in (among many other ways) my quirky insistence on finding out fire escape information when I am travelling, including stuff like staying with friends — if we are on other than the ground floor, how can we get out if we can’t get downstairs? What are the safety issues involved in flinging ourselves from that window versus this one? Do the smoke alarms work? I forget exact details — did my grandmother witness a horrible hotel fire? Was she in one, and escaped? But it’s something like that, and the awareness/planning that instilled in her (and my mother) is now part of me.

6 Justine { 07.23.12 at 12:58 pm }

It’s funny. I don’t know why, but I’ve never gotten all fired up about my own family. I remember when I first met Steve’s family, I had him draw family trees for me because it was easier to remember everything in picture form: his father and mother are divorced and both remarried, and so are some of his aunts, and both families are big, so it’s hard to keep track. My father had eight brothers and sisters, but we never knew a lot about them … we only knew four of them, and then not even very well. They lived in Spain and Guatemala and Puerto Rico, so we saw them infrequently, and the language barrier growing up–despite the fact that I could speak, I wasn’t fluent, and they knew almost no English–made me feel like I didn’t belong, somehow. On my mom’s side, there were two brothers, one of whom was a “black sheep” and divorced my aunt early then died of alcoholism … and another who moved to Texas and didn’t seem to be interested in keeping in touch. So I kind of grew up without close family … and I guess I felt OK about it. I “borrowed” a lot of families when I was growing up. And honestly, I think that the family tree of my heart might look pretty crazy if I were to draw it. Interesting post … thanks for the food for thought.

7 Jjiraffe { 07.23.12 at 2:11 pm }

I really loved reading about Loribeth’s archiving projects. Her family is so lucky to have her. And I love Keanne’s point, too.

My grandmother had a beautiful family tree that traced back the Yorks to Miles Standish. The tree looked like a Ketubah: a work of art. I’m really interested in Darcy’s side of the family right now: no one is an archivist on that side of the family.

8 a { 07.23.12 at 7:14 pm }

As soon as we got back from my aunt’s memorial service, my oldest sister and I got on ancestry.com and started researching the family. Although we can go back to the mid-1800s on one side of my dad’s family, it’s only my great-grandfather, as ours is a family of late bloomers! I can, however, trace my husband’s family (the main line, anyway) back to the 1500s in England. It’s fascinating.

The really unfortunate part about all of this is that I did my family tree most thoroughly in 3rd grade. I had to interview family members, so I got great stories. I saw the stuff when my mom moved 14 years ago, but I don’t know what happened to it since then. 🙁 Oh well, next step is visiting Canada (my dad’s maternal grandmother came to the US from Ireland via Canada) and Ireland to look up records personally.

9 Emily @ablanket2keep { 07.23.12 at 9:30 pm }

I learn more and more about my family as I talk to my grandparents. It just amazes me. I have not put together a family tree since I was little, but I have a lot of info and probably should. I am obsessed with that show, “Who do you think you are?” where the celebrities trace their family tree back really far and find some amazing things.

10 Kathy { 07.24.12 at 12:43 am }

I have an inconsistent passion for Genealogy. Over the years I have been really into it and then I go months and years at a time doing nothing. I have a binder for Bob’s side of the family and one for mine where I keep all the notes I have.

I got a CD-Rom software probably 10 years ago now that doesn’t work on any of our computers anymore, so I am due to update or likely just use something online.

Lucky for me, both Bob and my family’s have people that have been into researching and piecing together our family trees, so there is a lot there (in my binders).

The first time I went to New York City I couldn’t wait to visit Ellis Island and it was around the time they had started that website that helped you to research your relatives that crossed over and came through there. I found some of my maternal grandfather’s family in that database.

On my maternal grandmother’s side we have a distant relative from Ireland who served in the Revolutionary War. One of my distant Great Aunts actually joined the D.A.R. and thus someday if I want to do the work between her and me, my mom, cousins, sister and I could join, if we want to. When I was in D.C. awhile back I went to the D.A.R. headquarters and learned all about the process and what I will need to do, if and when I want to.

I have a collection of mass cards from just about every wake and funeral I have ever been to. I have always been fascinated by and unusually comfortable with wakes and funerals, maybe in part because my paternal grandfather and great grandfather were funeral directors.

I know this is super stream of consciousnesses, but your posts have that effect on me… They strike chords that get me musing. Not unlike your Old Town post recently, I probably could and should make my rambling into a separate post.

One last thing, when you mentioned talking with your relative in CA, it reminded me of how after my beloved maternal grandmother died (who I was very close with) 12 years ago, whenever I would talk on the phone with her younger sister/my great aunt it was both awesome and freaky, sometimes I would get tears, because she sounded so much like my Grandma. I had a similar experience with my maternal grandfather’s sister. I spoke with her a few times over the years after he died (14 years ago) and it was so bittersweet. She died last year and was the last of that generation of my blood relatives that was still living.

I also always remember the story of you waking up in the night and knowing your grandma died. I am pretty sure I recall reading when you wrote about it here and also you mentioning it in a comment on my blog last year after my childhood friend died and I dreamed about getting to say goodbye to her.

Thank you for sharing all of this. I also really appreciate what Keanne said about how our blogs can help future generations/our decedents know more about us. Though I interviewed my grandparents a few times while they were living, I was a lot younger and there is so much that I wish I could ask them now, as a thirty-somethings adult, that I wouldn’t have considered asking back then.

11 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 07.24.12 at 12:55 am }

When I was pregnant my father got quite excited about genealogy for the twins’ sakes, and since then he’s traced branches of his family back to the 16th century. I have a mostly-complete personal project compiling photos of the closest generations, and I actually have great-grandparents in two branches and great-great-grandparents in another branch, but my mother’s is totally blank except for her, so I can’t bring myself to put up the photos (they’re all framed, sitting in the corner) and I can’t bring myself to do any genealogical research, because there’s no way to trace the parts of the family from other countries, esp. since I don’t speak those languages, and the people who would theoretically have photos or answers for me either can’t be reached or seem not to be speaking to me.

My father is really enjoying gathering colorful stories, but the photos are what do it for me. One of DH’s grandfather where he looks exactly like Burrito might look at age 5; DH’s grandmother as a teenage girl when life was good, before the concentration camp; a photo my grandfather sent to my grandmother when he was overseas during WWII, with his handwritten love note on the back… That’s what genealogy means to me: not filling in names from hundreds of years ago, but knowing a little more about real people that we knew and loved.

12 luna { 07.24.12 at 2:29 am }

I love this, and the comments it spurs.

at its roots, a family tree is as much about stories as it is names and genes: stories of how people become connected and intertwined. fascinating, really.

I think about this with adoption a lot, but in a few different ways. of course first for what adoptees have lost, often cut off from their original tree and genetic heritage, unless the families truly extend and create a new branch (as we’re trying to, at least in part); and even then still there is loss on the original tree, the missing branch. but also when I think of the stories and heirlooms passed down to me, I wonder will they mean anything to my daughter? I mean, my mom is clearly her bubbe,and I talk about my nana, and I’m already passing along those recipes and rituals — but in the end, for her those will be connections to ME. so I’m trying to collect stories for her from her ancestry, as well. but it’s really hard to map.

I’ve heard there are some good models for family trees for those joined through adoption, but I’ve never seen a good one. anyone?

anyway. a worthy project, and very thought provoking.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.25.12 at 12:45 am }

I, too, like what KeAnne said.

I had the same curl-up-in-a-ball thought last week when I visited my grandparents’ graves. And my children demanded to know stories about them. I told many. And still, it was dust in the wind, as I will one day be. Such a deep thought I could hardly stay with it.

In more humorous news, Reed said he was sad because there will be no stories for him and his sister to tell their kids about their childhoods. Because, it’s so, yanno, BORING.

Until Mom and I started reminding him of things.

It’s all in the telling, isn’t it?

14 missohkay { 07.25.12 at 2:14 pm }

I dread the day we have to do genealogy projects in school for my daughter’s sake. Maybe she will be just as happy to fill out a tree with our information… but if she isn’t? I’ll be as heartbroken as she is.

15 Bea { 08.13.12 at 10:55 am }

A wonderful project. I’m sure you’ll make at least one or two great connections.


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