I Never Asked. And other laments of a genealogist.

Note to My Readers:  One common regret that family researchers continually express is “I never asked. Or…I never listened.”  Often times it is both.  I certainly bemoan my own impatient youth…taking my mother for granted.  I should have known better.  My father died when I was ten years old.  I was born late in my parents’ lives and never knew my grandparents.  My mother was my sole (soul?) link to the past…to my heritage.  But that was for old people and I had young people things to do.

Fortunately my mother kept boxes of photos and keepsakes.  Black and white frozen Kodak images framed within crenelated edges.  My teenage brothers lazing during a hot summer at Owasco Lake Park.  My sister and I, side by side, wearing the Easter dresses our mother made.  White gloves always…and an Easter bonnet.  My Dad.  Crisp white shirt…as poor as we were then…laundered at the Chinese laundry.  Starched edges so sharp.  I can still remember the smell of the starch mingled with his Old Spice aftershave.  Here or there…a photo of my mother.  She seemed to be the archivist…the amateur family photographer in many instances and the keeper of odd bits of flotsam and jetsam that are the thrill of genealogists.  And the tender tug of a daughter’s heartstrings.

Deborah Purdy in front of the Morse Chain

The photographs I have of my mother are a treasure and often have me longing to know more about her.  Not as my mother.  But as the little girl growing up in Ithaca, New York at the turn of the last century.  The vivacious flapper of the 1920’s.  The plucky young teen who lived on her own at 15…who studied business and became a bookkeeper at the Morse Chain in Ithaca, New York where she met my father.  I suppose my curiosity about my mother and father propelled me into my late-in-life passion…genealogy.  But I like the term family history better.

My mother’s narratives of our family history were a woven tapestry of facts and carefully crafted sentimentality.  Perhaps because I was young, I accepted these lovely stories as pure and academic reality.   Or perhaps because I sensed these were HER stories, I didn’t ask many questions.  Not revealing ones anyway.

So now I ask.  And search.  I pour over time-worn documents and stare at aging images. I have long conversations with historians and thrill when they warm up to their subject and travel their time machine.   But, I wish I could ask my mother all of the questions that research won’t answer.  I often joke that I need to live to be 500 years old…Methuselah if you will…to accomplish the level of research I aspire to.  And ask a million questions.  And leave a legacy of good work for my children…and their children…and all of the human beings that have and will share my DNA.  And to hope that they ask…and from each generation there is one soul that picks up my thread…adds to it…and passes it on.

The Dark Arts

With an apology for bending Hogwart’s terminology…I plunge into the business of purchasing Death Certificates from Vital Statistics, haunt cemeteries in every month of the year including October and collect obituaries in my merry little library.   Along with the happy bits of life that are normal and uplifting, I have discovered that genealogists…including me…go fairly giddy with these subjects.  But then archaeologists dig up ancient sites…intimately handle human remains and put their discoveries on display for our wonderment.  And so we gather “remains” and artifacts and from them, fashion our understanding of our ancestors…breathe life into them and sit back and ponder the not- quite-three- dimensional, dancing images of generations.  Dark Arts.

Two months ago I wrote a check for a whopping $120…filled out the death certificate request form…genealogy version…for several sets of grandparents…and popped it into the mail box.  There went my Nespresso coffee for awhile…in this economy…something had to give and I can’t fund TWO addictions.  I have done this before.  It can take two or three months for anything to come back and I am patient.  Until the end of the second month.  When I hear the familiar sound…tick tick purr…of the USPS jeep…I tear down the driveway and yank open the mail box.  Bills.  Flyers.  Coupons.  Catalogs.  More Flyers.  Sigh.  I take my frustration out on the junk mail…ripping it up before tossing and think “tomorrow”.

It is autumn now – almost Halloween – and the days of cemetery walking are coming to a close.  The brilliant autumn leaves are now drab and brittle and flutter like wounded birds caught in the trees. And I heard the “S” word for New England in the weather forecast.  Alas.  The itinerary for spring in New York State is already beyond full.  But there is www.findagrave.com and the wonderful local volunteers who are willing to trudge through wintering cemeteries and photograph the monuments to add to the memorials.   Every day new sources are available on the internet that make a snow bound (EEK!) day into a field trip of some kind….without Nespresso.  Ah well.  Christmas is coming…and Santa knows I run on coffee.

Honing The Craft

Of course, this is a good time to become a better genealogist.  Settle down and revisit the basics.  How are your files?  Usually they are reasonably well kept…thoughtfully organized after the first few analytical sessions.  But not perfect.  And there are those articles and books to read.  And don’t even talk about the boxes of old photos that are stacked in the guest room closet.

I found three or four books I bought a few years ago tucked behind the new books.  There are ALWAYS new books here.  Once I had momentum as a researcher, the books (barely read) ceased to catch my attention and I just never looked back.  A “newbie” had contacted me a week ago and I thought of the slightly used books and how useful they might be to him.  Then I sat down to glance through them casually.  I wanted to make sure I hadn’t tucked an important note or photo into the book and forgotten.  It wasn’t long before a chapter in the “BCG  Genealogical Standards Manual” caught my eye.  The research process they recommended reminded me of the important discipline of biography building.  Two hours and many pages later, I was humbly reminded that I was a “newbie” in so many areas even after years of successful research and I had best keep the primers and use them to be a better genealogist.

Of course, the adrenalin rush of discovery (with or without Nespresso) keeps us engaged, but the real and important work is laying in one more piece of the puzzle.  Great great grandfather had blue eyes like mine.  It said so in his Civil War records.  Great great grandmother made blue ribbon winning pies…like my mother.  It is just one facet among so many that we gather…with the expected gaps…but enough.  And it is the enough that causes us to sit down and build the puzzle with the pieces we have.

For now…I pull out the bits and pieces and lay them before me…remembering my primer skills and …oh…sorry…the postal truck is here……….

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved

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2 thoughts on “I Never Asked. And other laments of a genealogist.

  1. I love when you post something, too. Besides being entertained, we can relate to you and your interesting stories and always learn something after reading about your experiences. Thanks!

    Sue Campbell

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