Jun 022010

Dr. Daniel Hubbard, Personal Past Meditations, raises the question of “Why?” we do genealogical research. He suggests a variety of “why’s” — for example:

  • a pastime to wile away the hours
  • a puzzle to be solved
  • we get to play detective
  • the adrenaline rush when uncovering something new
  • moving from the known into the unknown
  • finding new “cousins”
  • religious imperative
  • on a quest
  • making connections
  • a drive to immortalize

I can resonate with most of those “why’s.” I am still trying to refine my “How-tos.” The real challenge for me right now is improving and extending my source citations. (Actually, the real challenge is just doing it!) There is, however, the question that Dan Hubbard is raising — namely, “Why am I so passionate about my genealogical research?” … and … “Why do I want to get it right?”

I have come to understand my life as being the story I live. Like all stories, it has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The middle of the story is compromised of many chapters. As I approach my 70th birthday, I am aware that a) I have chapters still to write and b) there are far more chapters that have already been written than those that are yet to be penned.

As I discover more and more of the chapters of the life stories of my ancestors, I find that I learn more of my own story – both the already-written as well as the yet-to-be-written chapters. When I learn that my gg-grandfather (a nursery man and a tombstone carver) and my grandfather (an arc engraver) were artisans of a sort, I begin to understand something of my own artistic inclinations. When I see a consistent story of involvement by my ancestors in church and community affairs, I begin to understand that my call to ministry is as much a matter of family heritage as it is a purely spiritual matter.

Our stories are marvelously connected, generation after generation after generation. The individualism of American culture might suggest that we each start with a blank sheet of paper as we write our own stories. The more I learn about my family’s history and the more I hear others talk and write about theirs, I am increasingly convinced that no one writes his or her story, as if on a blank sheet. My story is a continuation of the stories of the Brenners & the Venningers of Adelshofen, Baden; of the Messeralls of eastern Pennsylvania; of the Smiths from Dayton, Ohio; and of the melting pot that was Youngstown, Ohio. Each new fact that goes into my database, each new ancestor I can name, each new “cousin” with whom I become connected, each of these help me write just a little more of my own story.

So, WHY do I engage in genealogical research? The simple answer is that I learn the facts about my ancestors in order to tell their stories… and I tell their stories so I can be more deeply invested in my own story.

Oh, yes! and I want to leave a good story for my grandchildren to grow with, into, and beyond!

Mar 192010

I just finished watching the latest WDYTYA.  There was much less genealogical research and much more story arising from the facts that were found.  This edition of WDYTYA confirms what many of us who are more family historian than genealogist seek in our research – namely, the stories behind the research.  Uncovering a few facts that lead to a convincing story is far more satisfying than facts that only lead to a research log.

I found myself moved from tears of sadness (as Lisa read the account of the murder and burning of the Jews of Ilya) to the warmth of a whole body smile as she talks to Tomek, and then the gentle tears of joy as Lisa’s father and Boreslav get connected via a video call.  This is the ‘payoff’ that many of us seek – taking scraps of a family’s remembered story and building upon it…   adding story to story…    finding new chapters and new character in the story…   and finally being able to tell a new, expanded story.  

The research, the hard search for accurate facts, the hours spent at the computer or in the county court house, organizing files and photos, documenting sources, filling out family group sheets, and so much more is all worth the effort when they lead to a new and improved version of the story.   Of course, the new version of the story is not always as gut-wrenching as Lisa Kudrow’s, and it doesn’t have to have a happy ending.  Because the story, in and of itself, is enough when it is my story…  our story!

I enjoyed the first two editions of WDYTYA as a genealogist / family historian.  I watched tonight’s edition first and foremost as a human being.  I found my heart singing along with the music at the end.