Monday, August 5, 2013
The hunk and I spent some long hours on the road, tracking down elusive documents, visiting the National Archives and libraries in tiny towns, leafing through enormous books in county clerk's offices in out-of-way places. I imagine we logged thousands of miles in our quest for the family past.
That was long before computers took the zest out of the search. Oh, a computer Internet search is far easier and less expensive, I grant you, but there are things you miss when you don't go out in the field.
You miss the joy of meeting folks who get just as caught up in your search as you are--even though it isn't even their family. You miss the feeling of connection when you stand at the gravesite of a long dead ancestor you've driven all to hell and gone to find. You miss the chance meetings with distance relations who have that elusive clue you need to solve your puzzle.
The best search is a half-n-half search. Find the basic facts that provide the framework. Then go forth and discover the past.
My kids grew up believing all families spent their vacations tracking down cemeteries in remote fields. Our family never seemed to die in town. No, they kicked the bucket in the middle of nowhere, USA. We've visited cemeteries in fields, road-side rests, overgrown woods, and oppressive summer heat. I discovered the hunk's family in a wind blown, snowy cemetery on a cold New York day in April.
Along the way, we've met the most delightful people, some via telephone or snail mail letter, others via e-mail or in person. We've exchange pictures and information and puzzles because inevitably the researcher accumulates clues that don't apply to their own family.
I'll never forget the thrill of receiving an e-mail from a fellow researcher in Alabama. "I think I have your Andrew's parents!" I'd spent nearly thirty years worrying at Andrew's puzzle when that e-mail arrived. The following year the hunk and I spent two hours in a tiny Alabama court house poring over the faded written records from the early 1800s. There I found the answer to my question. Who was Andrew's mother and father?
The hunk and I once drove three hours to visit a small, one room library in a little New England town. There, up in a loft, we found a dusty book that listed three separate branches of his family. It had birthdates, names, and deathdates. One family named three baby girls Bathsheba before one lived longer than a week.
In a cemetery in New York we discovered a family that lost seven children in one year's time. We sometimes forget how very hard life was in the past. That connection we make when we track down our ancestors reminds us they aren't just names on a piece of paper, but people who had their own share of joy and grief. They lived, loved, and died.
That is the essence of searching for the family past.