Death Visits A Genealogist
Death Slaps Me, Hard
For the first time since I’ve become the family genealogist, we had a death in the family. I mean a close death, one that deeply affected those nearest to me. The death was swift, unexpected, and heart-breaking. I suddenly found myself back in my old desert town, surrounded by a large, devastated family I’d divorced away from almost twenty years ago.
If you know me or read my blog, you know that I’ve done nothing but family research for the last twenty months. I’ve dived in, drank the purple Kool-Aid, and become completely consumed by it. I live, breathe, and dream genealogy. But not that day. That day I was just me, the ex-wife, the mother of children left fatherless, just as shocked and saddened as the brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews around me. Only when a sister asked if I wanted a copy of the death certificate did the genealogist me wake with a start.
Remember My Tree? It Sucks.
If you think about it, family historians spend most of our time digging into past generations of ancestors who are long gone, who we’ve never met, and probably had never even heard of. They immigrated from foreign places, spoke different languages, practiced other religions, and lived according to alien customs. These ascendants make up the vast majority of our trees and more significantly, each one of them was already dead when we met them. Their stories are distant, already complete, and rarely include us. Recording the date of death is just one more fact in a story already played out.
In comparison, the living people in the family tree are a very small and select group. We probably know most of them, we freely love some of them. They are our contemporaries. They inhabit the world, relatively close by, no more than a few plane rides away. Their lives are still unfolding, their records continue to be created, their stories are incomplete. Fewer still are the existent persons who are part of your everyday life, with whom you share vital records, ancestors, or descendants, whose story intersects and overlaps your own. They hold the most unique position in the family tree, we’re invested in their lives, in their records and documents, and we record their events in real time. Entering the date of death for these folks, transitioning forever your loved one from the vibrant status of “Living” to being a member of that other, larger, decidedly gone group is the saddest role of the family historian.
In our family’s tree, which I’ve spent countless hours constructing, his branch is woefully and unforgivably missing. Of the 8000 people in the tree, less than thirty of them are his people. I do not kid. Only his parents, his siblings, one set of grandparents, and a few aunts are recorded. The facts are sporadic, the images few, and there are zero sources. I literally spent about five minutes entering what’s there and I was profoundly embarrassed when my son asked the next morning to see it, knowing he could have found some comfort among his progenitors, if only I had them to share.
I Slap Death Back
So I started using some of the time spent among their father’s heavyhearted family being a very gentle genealogist. The cards were totally stacked in my favor. The entire clan was accessible and the events inherently lent themselves to revisiting their tribe’s tales. I casually asked about recent family events and current marital statuses, I made mental notes of names and dates. I wondered out loud if their family tree had ever been researched, did they have photos of their direct ancestors, what were their grandchildren’s names again? I trod very lightly among their tender memories. I tried to be both inquisitive and considerate. I respected their vulnerability and acknowledged my own. I savored renewing our family bonds and I found it natural to simultaneously be both a mourner and a genealogist. Being in pain focused me on what was important and finding the answers to grow their branch eased my grief. I probably saved myself a fortune in therapy.
And I found enough information to begin. I was told there’s an extensive tree out there somewhere on Ancestry and that it reaches back to the 17th century. A kindred spirit spent time scanning and emailing me photographs. Another promised to mail me a lineage someone created decades ago. No one called me out. We’re staying in touch. And I’m so excited to start the chronicle of their family tale, to plug that gaping hole in the larger story. As the days pass, I feel less sadden and more hopeful about what I can give back to this wonderful, forgotten family who are one half of my kids’ origin- a thoroughly researched and well documented branch of our shared family tree.
What do you think?