Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Piecing together the Puzzle; Some thoughts on Genealogy

My love affair with genealogy began about six years ago when I was sorting out all my mother's hundreds of photographs and was asking her to identify the people in the pictures.  I wanted to be able to remember who they were, put a name to a face, make sure they weren't forgotten and discarded. What started out as an innocent project quickly spiraled out of control, before I knew it I had memberships on ancestry.com, fold3, and archives.com. I was reading dusty old history books about towns I had never heard of, I was digging through the past and loving every minute of it. Unbeknownst to me, I had been infected with the genealogy bug. I was a genealogy junkie. I am a genealogy junkie. I'm surprised there is not a support group for people like me.

What do I love about genealogy?  I love that it is not easy.  I love that it may take hours, days, weeks even years to find nothing more than a date of birth or marriage or death.  It's challenging, frustrating and infuriating.  But, but when I find that name or date or what ever document that has been hiding from me, it is sublime.  I was sitting at my computer at work on day (yes, I sneak a peak or two on my lunch break) when a particular piece of information lined up and I made what I consider to be my greatest find, my co-workers must have thought I'd lost my mind or won the lottery.  I could hardly contain myself, I was dancing around the office, that memory still makes me smile.

To me, each ancestor is a puzzle.  A puzzle that has been broken apart and three quarters of the pieces thrown out.  The pieces that remain were scattered about and, just to make it even more difficult, they were mixed with the pieces of another person's puzzle. The more pieces we find, the clearer the person becomes to us.  The further back in time we go, looking for puzzle pieces, the harder they are to find and, the fewer there are of them.

Puzzle pieces with dates and major events are the easiest pieces to put together. What is harder and, sometimes impossible, to locate are the pieces that tell us not the whens and the wheres but the whats.  What did they look like, were they short, tall, skinny, fat, beautiful or ugly?  What color was their hair, their eyes, what did their voices sound like?  What were their beliefs, were they religious, did they believe in heaven or hell? Were they funny, smart, stupid, rude, were they mean or a bully?  Did they love, were they loved in return? Unless they wrote a revealingly intimate journal, these are questions which I believe we can never answer, but it is surely tempting to try. I love to try to place my ancestors into their historic time and place and write a narrative of their life. It makes them more interesting to me, not just a bunch of dates, but a real person, who lived and walked this earth. That is what I love the most about genealogy.

What do I dislike about genealogy?  Often times the answer is....other researchers. We are all chasing the same pieces of our ancestor's puzzle, are we not?  We may have different objectives and wish for different outcomes. Some researchers are sharers, some are not.  Because I write this blog, I am lucky to have been contacted by fellow researchers who are interested in sharing and comparing our pieces. People have generously mailed me printouts of their information, they have emailed me documents and they have sent CD's filled with photos. There have been many times when I have found that not only was I missing some important pieces, but that I had the wrong ones as well, and I am grateful for the assistance of others in correcting my information.

I have also been TOLD my puzzle is wrong.  I may have the right pieces, but I have not put them together the right way, their way. I have been berated and bullied; I was once threatened with a  lawsuit if I did not amend my post. I am more than happy to allow polite dissenters to air their views on my blog, and why not. I understand that though we may have the same pieces, we interpret them differently, we come at them from differing angles. differing view points, differing life experiences. These differing interpretations bring us back to the fact that we can never really know another human being, especially one long dead.   We will never know our ancestor's motivations, their passions, their relationship with their world and with those whom they came in contact with. If we can civilly agree to disagree, I will happily play the puzzle with you. If, however, you demand that I change my puzzle or you retreat to your own ill written website to bad mouth me and other researchers whose work you disagree with, well, I don't want to play with you.

I write my blog for my own pleasure.  I hope that members of my family also enjoy reading about our common ancestors.  If others stumble upon my blog, and actually read the content, great. If you want to collaborate, yea!  If you don't like what I've written, oh well.  Write your own story of our ancestor's puzzle, but leave me and my name out of it.

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