Genealogy Newbie – Catching the Spark

Genealogy Newbie - Family Tree GraphicIt’s easy to explain why I didn’t want to do genealogy for so long. It looked boring. It looked like the worst combination of tedious bookkeeping and tedious History class, the kind taught by an indifferent teacher who required you to memorize the name of the hill and the date of the battle, and called it History. I hated my History classes.

Also, I assumed most people are hoping that, if they search back far enough on their family tree, they’ll find royalty. I had no reason to believe I’m descended from royalty. It’s far more likely that, as far back as one can find records, I’m descended from regular people, doing regular things, and probably spilling their drinks down the fronts of their shirts at inconvenient times as they do so. I imagine they were much like me.

Also, it’s overwhelming. I have two parents, and four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. And it continues growing exponentially from there. Genealogy is a task that you can start, but you can never finish.

1 generation – 2 ancestors
2 generations – 4 ancestors
3 generations – 8 ancestors
4 generations – 16 ancestors
5 generations – 32 ancestors
6 generations – 64 ancestors
7 generations – 128 ancestors
8 generations – 256 ancestors
9 generations – 512 ancestors
10 generations – 1024 ancestors
And so on.
And so on…
And so on……..

Also, it’s hard to even know where to start. I’ve barely preserved my own records or stories. I don’t know the proper spelling of my dad’s middle name. I’m not very organized. And though I know a lot of it has been done by other people, which is a comfort, it’s also a little intimidating, like walking into an exam for a class I never attended.

But recently, I heard a story. During World War II, the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany. After the war, most of the three million German-speaking citizens were expelled from the country. It turns out some of those people were my people. In the village of my ancestors, soldiers pounded on peoples’ doors, and gave families ten minutes to gather what they could carry and to leave their homes, forever. I don’t know which of my family members were expelled, or where they went, or what became of them. Before a few days ago, I didn’t even know that this had happened. But now I’m caught by it. What was that like for them? Ten minutes isn’t enough time to make all the children go potty before you head out the door. How could you leave with a whole family in ten minutes? What could you take with you? How would you survive?

With Mom and Joan
Meeting our cousin Joan

I heard this story from a woman named Joan. She’s a fifth cousin on my mother’s mother’s side. I met her last week. We were put in touch with her by the president of a genealogy interest group, and she’s great. She’s intelligent, interesting, filled with fascinating stories, and fun to be with. My mom has been tinkering with our family genealogy for decades, and this keeps happening. As she searches for dead relatives, she keeps finding live ones, and they become friends.

Next week we’re going to see Joan again. We’re traveling to Chilton, WI, to visit the place some of our relatives settled when they came to this country. We’re going to visit the churches they used to attend, find their graves, look for the location of their homesteads, look up at the same sky they used to see and walk the same ground they walked. I’d never given any thought to visiting Chilton before, and now I can’t wait.

In fact, travel is one of the bonuses of genealogy research. Traveling for genealogy means starting on a quest. You have to get off the tourist path, ask questions, meet people, wander the roads your ancestors traveled, and let your imagination wander. From the accounts I’ve read, if you’re doing it right, the trip will be riddled with false starts, messed up timetables, misunderstandings, and surprising discoveries. You may be lucky, and find the answers to the questions that inspired the journey. You may be lucky, and find different answers. Or, you may be lucky, and find new questions you hadn’t known to ask. And in the meantime, you’ll see wonderful places, meet wonderful people, and have wonderful experiences.

I imagine there are many reasons people start doing genealogical research. As I progress, I’m looking forward to hearing what inspired other people. But I think these may be things that did it for me:

  • Genealogy is about the stories, and it’s also about the wondering.
  • Genealogy is about the dead people, and it’s also about the living ones you meet.
  • Genealogy is about finding answers, and it’s also about the quest.

Why did I get started in genealogy? I couldn’t help it. I caught the spark.