Family History · Obsessions

Finding and Losing Myself: A Trip through


There are a lot of small quirks I notice in myself that I sometimes wonder are the products of years and years of familial cultivation, either genetic or learned. Sometimes I’ll throw myself head first into a project and devote hours to it only to be distracted by something else entirely. Typically, this results in a totally new set of studio equipment, a new collection, book or show, or research.

These days, it’s harder to manage multiple interests with a full-time job. I just come home so tired, good day or bad. And there’s so much that I want to do. I want to write, read my books, watch my shows, finish this research, exercise, set up the next day’s healthy meals, meet up with friends I’ve neglected, and keep up this blog. I can’t always hit it all at once.

About five or six years ago, I was between degrees in school with time to kill. I spent six months combing through records to develop my parents’ family trees. I hit the handful of jackpots that would jolt me from my click-slumber- Mayflower cruising, Charlemagne, Aethelred the Unready, Sven Forkbeard, Harald Bluetooth (does the family get royalties??), and Bjorn Ironside (son of Ragnar Lothbrok of History Channel’s Vikings).

While the names and ties are fun to discover, what’s more interesting for me is the ability to see migratory patterns throughout history taking place in my family tree. So when I was asked to put together Mike’s family tree for his Dad’s birthday, I was excited to see those same patterns pop up for a potentially whole different set of historical events. I thought I’d only be able to pull a few names and dates since most families really don’t go back that far. Wrong! His family goes back so far!

Initially, I thought I’d be able to put together a book of highlights- every person with a story I could find, preferably with a photo. His family descends from Scottish rulers tracing back to the 900s. At just over 500 pages and a month left, I realized that I really, really needed to shave this down. Instead, I pieced together a short family biography (a mere 20 pages or so) of people I could catalogue through stories, census and ship records, as well as historical data to frame their lives. This is not only concise- about a paragraph per person- but also allows the reader to navigate his or her way through the line, rather than being confronted with random names. This process- finding records, documenting, and summarizing- has taken a little over two months of working about 3-4 hours nightly, sometimes more on weekends. It’s a labor of love and obsession that has left little room for any other hobbies (like this blog!).

Here are a few tips if you’re  considering starting a family tree:

  • Make sure you’re really dedicated. Ancestry costs $35/month- if that cost doesn’t bother you, great. If you’d rather do other things with the money, be ready to work as quickly as possible, dedicating large chunks of time to getting the project done.
  • Gather as much info as you can before signing up- full (accurate!) names, dates of birth, dates of marriage, dates of death, locations.
  • Prepare for hurdles. My grandfather deliberately gave me wrong names. Mike’s family forgot that nicknames aren’t on official documents. Your great grandmother may have been known as Mamie but the courthouse knows her as Mary Margaret.
  • Some questions just won’t be answered. For example- Mamie was raised by three uncles. I still can’t answer why either because the family story isn’t there, or someone doesn’t want to tell me, or the documents aren’t available.
  • Your line may run cold due to destroyed documents. Wars in Europe and and fires in Ireland have consumed many records- sometimes you’ll luck out as I did and find the entire line or in the case of one of Mike’s lines, you’ll barely find anything in the same country.
  • If you’re after family stories, ask pointed questions:
    • What was your favorite family meal as a child? When did you eat it (i.e. special occasions)? Who made it for you?
    • Did you ever have any weekly traditions? (My grandmother’s family had Wednesday Wash Day with all the women, Sunday was always the entire family at dinner, Saturday her grandmother bought jars of peaches from a city department store and brought it home in a buggy)
    • How did you meet your spouse? Do you remember anything about them from that first introduction? Mike’s grandmother- much to everyone’s surprise- shocked us all when she said she had three boyfriends when she met her future husband and decided she liked him best!
  • Stay away from generalized questions like “What do you remember from growing up?” Most of these types of questions are too open ended, especially if you’re asking someone who’s quite old. Think short essay prompts- something that will guide the respondent to what exactly it is you’re after.
  • Consider emailing or writing these questions and sending them to loved ones rather than calling or asking in person. This gives them time to remember and not feel put on the spot to recall something.
  • That said, try to start the conversation about what you’re trying to do in person or over the phone. Some people are very protective about their family stories and history. Providing a framework or context for what you’re trying to achieve can be important.
  • Gather your old family photos, remove them from their acidic photo albums (quick, before they fade out!), and sit down with a relative to figure out who’s who. This is a great time to ask questions and put stories to faces.
  • Be ready for tear-jerkers. Depending on your age, your parents through great-grandparents may have lived through the Great Depression and numerous wars. There are many rarely spoken of stories of loss- of work, children, family members. Some of these stories include families being split up due to financial issues, loss of life from illness (Dust Bowl or otherwise), and just plain hardship. Even further back, you may find things. Parts of Mike’s family fled persecution for Quakerism, other branches fled Russia from pogroms. Human history is complicated. Be ready for some heart-breaking tales.
  • Be ready for uplifting details as well. If your family tree is short, focus on census records and land deeds. Hundreds of years later, I was still happy to see his country ancestor with little education buy a large chunk of land for his family and be successful. If your family tree is long or you run into Sirs and Ladies, run a few names through Google and see what pops up. You may just find someone Wikipedia famous.
  • Be ready to see characteristics of your family come through in you. My family comes from a long line of stubborn, dedicated rulers and warriors. I see their ambition and hard-headedness in my family today. I also see a lineage of scientific exploration on my mom’s side that still carries on and a whole lot of gumption and ingenuity on Mike’s. Nature vs. nurture is real- be ready to face the highs and lows of your family traits!



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