Why I’m Still a Family Tree Newbie
Mama said, “I’m leaving you the family tree.”
In 1997, my mom started our family tree by arranging to receive Family Tree Maker Version 4.0 for Christmas. (Remember the colorful, HUGE boxes with the fold open front flap they’d pack a couple of CDs and a thin manual into?) I think it was her first, and perhaps only, software program. She sat at her bulky Windows PC in a corner of the kitchen and with CDs of vital records and passenger lists ordered through snail mail, delved into her roots. I was a single mom of four, busy with my own stuff, and paid very little attention to her new hobby. Then one day, months and months, maybe even years later, she proudly shared her progress. A family tree with some people here and there, just a few generations, all of her slow, hard work. I leaned in over her shoulder and tried to see what she saw. Cool tree, I guess? Then, being the recent recipient of an advanced computer degree and still not being too smart, I innocently asked, “So, how are you backing this up?”. And THAT, my friends, is how I got here, to this place. The wonderful world of genealogy.
The Family Tree Stuff Bides Its Time
She died in 2005 and yep, I was given, and removed from their home, “the family tree stuff”. This included, but was by no means limited to: Her entire PC setup (our house was solidly Mac), two Family Tree Maker software versions complete with original front flappy boxes, manuals, and CDs, too many additional data CDs to even think about counting, numerous notebooks and files, and a large moving box, carefully taped shut and actually labeled, in my mother’s magic-marker wielding hand, “Tree Stuff”. I can actually picture the look on her face as she wrote those words, pleased in her smug certainty that she’d chosen the right child to entrust something she so treasured. The whole package went, unexamined, into a closet. And because I was thus labeled “tree person”, when my father died the next year, “tree stuff” came to also include boxes of his framed diplomas, professional certificates, and awards, their box of school yearbooks, his box of personal treasures and another, mysterious box labeled “Mom’s Treasures”. Yes, these things had obvious sentimental value but, seriously? Was I supposed to lug around six boxes and an old PC forever?
Mama’s Tree Revisited
Fast forward to 2013. I’d quit my soul-sucking software job a few years earlier and had become a self taught web designer/developer with a few happy clients and a new-found lust for color and art. But I couldn’t create the state of the art, dynamic sites I kept envisioning, not by myself anyway, and still stinging from corporate coworker dynamics, I backed away from that too. Talk about depressing. But let’s not. Bottom line- I was licking my wounds wondering what the hell COULD I DO? when I remembered…the tree stuff! I dug out that PC and fired her up. Nothing. Nada. I’d lugged that thing 1000 miles, stored it for over eight long years and the fricking thing wouldn’t boot. Hardware never having been my cuppa, my husband spent days opening up machines, attaching them by their guts, reformatting files, uploading, downloading, cursing, (I kid, he never curses, that’s my cuppa…) and he finally gets my mom’s GEDCOM file out. We upload that to the FTM on Mac and lo! there it is, that message in a bottle, mom’s tree. 177 glorious, related people, presented to me in unadorned pedigree format with no photos, no media, no sources or citations. I am excited as hell, I have a new project! I inform my siblings that I’m doing it, I’m DOING THE FAMILY TREE!
Aaaannnndddd, she’s off…
Due to their robust marketing efforts, I cannot fail to see that FTM syncs with trees on Ancestry. I can make my sibs look at it online! So I sign up and in the process discover that Ancestry has a mother lode of online family records and not only that, they have a lot of MY family’s records and LOOK! there’s all these wonderful trees that other wonderful, experienced, unselfish people have painstakingly created and shared and there’s just SO MUCH information, so darn many generations, and I love it. I dive in, wade here, plunge there, doggie paddle about and my tree grows. In just a few weeks, I’ve got thousands of ancestors, in a few months, I’ve got Charles Dodson and you know what that means, Jane Eagle Plume, an Indian!, and her father Chief Eagle Plume! I’m ignoring my house, I’m pulling all-nighters, I’m climbing all over that tree and suddenly we’re related to the Presidents Bush! And Emily Dickinson! My husband is sadly neglected but did you know that one of my cousins founded Marshall Fields and another was a Mormon Tabernacle organist? I discover we’ve got Vikings, no wait, Scottish Kings, and who would have guessed it, The Beach Boys! I find colonists, slave owners, civil war veterans, a murderer, a mayor, and one direct ancestor who was condemned by the Queen to hang. We could join the Daughters of the American Revolution about nine different times! And just about the time I discovered that Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham is our cousin, I also realized that I was a complete and total idiot. That all of this cannot possibly be true.
And That’s How I’m Still a Family Tree Newbie
During this click-n-add phase (yes, I admit!), I was very focused on adding people to my tree but to my credit I was also marginally aware of the need for data integrity (computer degrees, remember?). I just didn’t know what that meant here in tree-world and who wants to stop and consider when there’s Downton Abbey? My first awakening occurred the day I came to understand, oh woeful lesson we all must learn, that “Ancestry Family Trees” as a “Source” is a meaningless joke. Soon after, I visited a genealogical library, a family cemetery, a historical society archive, and one courthouse basement. The unexpected richness of records and historical and personal information I found revealed both the value and the fun of onsite research and I was totally hooked. The little wheels in my head starting firing up and I started to realize that building a family tree and doing family research were two very different things. I was jonesing for more on the ground, in-depth research opportunities, triangulating my husband’s business trips with genealogy libraries with family locations. Slowly, I started seeing the bigger picture. I stopped growing my tree and began trying to learn about “genealogy”. I attended some webinars. I ordered books and have read some of them. I began wondering how to get my hands on original documents. I did even more in-library research because I loved being there, acting like I belonged, digging in the stacks, finding genealogical gems. I recognized my fellow library researchers as better, future versions of myself. So, “family tree” now has a different meaning to me, a lesser significance, something I’ll get back to. I’m no longer actively looking for people to add to our tree, I’m busy finding my family’s history, their reasons, their situations, their stories among the existing tree’s stronger branches. I’ve got a feeling mom’s tree will grow itself.
It feels like I’ve come full circle but really, I’ve only come half way round. I’m just a kid in the wonderful world of genealogy. And I’m still a family tree newbie.
What do you think?