Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hangin' out with the dead relatives...

On Monday morning, one of my coworkers is likely to say, "So, how was your weekend?" And very often my response is something like, "Pretty good. I hung out with some more of the dead relatives."

Truth be known, I probably am much more interested in the ancestors who lived 100 or more years ago than I ever was with any relatives who I actually knew. As I was a youngster growing up, it seemed like there was always stress in the air around members of one side of the family. To me, it seemed like they were always fighting or complaining about something one of the other family members had done. It seemed like there was always someone taking sides against someone else. And since my paternal grandparents had divorced, I grew up hating Sunday afternoons for fear that one set of grandparents would show up for a visit while the other grandparents were visiting at the same time. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I don't like it when someone stops by to visit without calling ahead . . .

The other side of the family had all moved away and we only saw them about every seven to ten years or so. We always had so much fun when we got together that we weren't around one another enough to pick fights.

All I know is that by about the time I was 20 years old or so, I really didn't have much contact to speak of with any of the relatives. And being an only child, I didn't have any siblings to like or dislike.

From the time I was very young, I did enjoy looking at those sepia toned photographs from the olden days. I had no idea who these people were or how I was connected to them, but they looked so regal in the floor length dresses, the huge hats, and the men with the bushy beards and moustaches. One of the photos of my grandfather that was taken circa 1903 always made me laugh - he and his brother posing on these ornate chairs with bigger than life bow-ties that looked like something worn by Soupy Sales. I don't think any child can quite connect the dots between those type of photographs and the aging, wrinkled person who is their grandparent.

Paul Kelly and his brother William Kelly (my grandfather)

When I first started to dabble in genealogy it was in response to a letter from a distant cousin who had tracked down the family and had written a letter to my grandmother looking for information on my great grandfather. My grandmother had been dead about twenty years, but the postmaster in the small town was still there and knew where to forward the letter to my mother. The day the letter was in our hands was the day I became a genealogist.

It was an easy match. I had minored in history in college along with my degree in journalism so I liked the investigative side of the hunt. It was no surprise that the first place I started my search was with the microfilms of the old newspapers from the family's home town - looking for tidbits of information about the family. A birth announcement here, an obituary there, and slowly, over time, more of the puzzle pieces started to come in to view.

It was quite a task in those days before the internet. That's probably why it took me a while to be able to track down a lot of information. Now, with the internet, I managed to add about 300 people to my family tree in a recent two day period.

I suppose that a researcher can do as much or as little as they want. When I find tidbits of information about someone that leads me to another family, I go off in that direction for a while. Being able to find a wealth of information is rather satisfying if I've hit a brick wall on another line of the family. And having information available to share online with others who might be looking for a date or a fact is quite rewarding.

Everyone seems to know a little bit of information about their family - some know more than others. But nearly everyone has some family lore they are ready to relate - or tell you what famous person they are related to. Sometimes it seems like you're in a playground tiff of "my ancestor's better than your ancestor." But I got past that a long time ago. The truth is, anyone you visit with probably isn't at all interested in hearing the story of your long lost relative or how you are related to an ex-President as a seventh cousin twice removed. But it's definitely fun once you connect with that long lost seventh cousin who knows a little bit of information about a long forgotten relative. More of the puzzle begins to fit together.

More than anything, I believe the joy of doing family history research is the passion that burns inside to find just one more fact, just one more person - and then to be able to share with others who are researching the same family. You probably get the reputation as being the family member who is always asking questions, asking someone to fill out a chart or asking to borrow photographs. That's okay - because the quest is the passion. There's something rather reassurring about learning about the every day lives of the people whose blood runs through you. And for someone who really hasn't had a lot of contact with a great deal of family over the last few decades, there's also a bit of connection to these people who came before. After all, without them, none of us would be here.

And so, it's time to once again set aside some time to hang out with the dead relatives.

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