The Joys of Genealogy

6 mn read

My father died as we celebrated my 12th birthday. We were a Swedish family, living in Switzerland. My 25-year-old brother was called home from university in America and our younger brother from Sweden. Losing our father changed our roles and shaped a new outlook on life.

Later we compared how we perceived our father’s funeral differently: through the eyes of myself as a child and my older brother as the new head of the family. That summer we all gathered in our home in the South of France. International travel, languages, cultures, foods, religions and traditions were easy for me to navigate as was the geography for railway and airport changeovers. Connections between other people were not necessarily so easy to work out.

Our next-door neighbour in France was a British author. For some reason, that very summer was the first time that she had a house full of guests. Though I could see that they were of different generations and nationalities and somehow linked, I simply could not get my head around their connections. It was my same patient older brother/new head of the family who took pen to paper and started drafting their family tree. Ex-spouse, current spouse, his children, her children, their child, his new family, twins, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, half-cousins. A blended family puzzle to which we added elements that whole summer holiday. I was hooked!

That summer of 1969 sowed the seed of a passion that has yielded over five decades of mystery, imaginary travel, understanding of human nature and answers to what seemed to be unsolvable questions. That jigsaw – hundreds of pieces in a box, which show chaos, confusion, sharp edges and curved lines.  Above all, perception of colour and a hint of what it might become. You need the pieces from the past to complete the present picture in order to pass it on for those down the line potentially interested in the future.

To me, my story was nothing out of the ordinary. After my father died, dates of birth and death took on a different meaning. My life, as I knew it, became compartmentalised into ‘before and after’ my father’s lifetime, him being an ever-present figure in my life. However, after my father’s death, dates started becoming landmarks. The following summer, I added my brother’s marriage date and by then “my” tree was firmly growing new roots of its own and not long after “my” tree was adorned with the leaf of my baby nephew.

My mother was not a home-loving type of person so, growing up as an only child – my brothers were much older than me and were not at home when I was young – as I did, I spent much time in the homes of my school friends. Thus, I became the extra daughter/sister in many households. The kitchen was a wonderful hub. Over time the grandparents shared their stories which I transcribed onto paper, creating family trees for many of my friends, usually as far as the grandparents’ own grandparents.

It was in 1997 that, by then aged 40, I took charge of all my late father-in-law’s papers.  There was one single document that changed the course of my general interest in family trees. His grandfather’s list of children born from his two marriages from 1870 to 1904 was comprehensive and meant I could start researching. Not only that, but he had also written about the sea voyages he had undertaken when travelling to work on the expansion of the railways in Peru, France and South Africa. Now my curiosity was piqued. My understanding of Victorian industrialisation spreading across the Empire became even more fascinating as I looked into individual records. Now I was researching in public libraries, family centres and regional record offices around the country.  My passion – while we raised three children – was enabling me to travel to these exciting places, and also become familiar with a different world of catalogues, indexes, original documents to be handled with gloves, reserving seats at old computers in libraries and the camaraderie that evolves in the nerdy world of enthusiastic amateur genealogists.

I was very fortunate to have caught the early bird seat on the new wave of national interest for family history, both in the USA and in Britain. The Church of Latter-Day Saints was instrumental in creating a human database and by 2004 there had been an explosion in available resources., FamilySearch and FindMyPast launched online records. “Who do you think you are” held exhibitions, workshops, publications and television series which took both countries by storm.  Tapestry kits that had been all the rage were being slowly dropped in favour of sending accessible emails around the world. Near instant response was the key to success. Clubs were formed for learners and those who had hit brick walls. Online support took off too.

With this advance in technology and an upsurge of interest, information spread rapidly. Expensive online memberships started offering more flexible options and home kit software often worked with a few months of free membership in their purchase price.

Since even then, continues to lead the way by adding “hints” to individuals for whom they might have found relevant new records. Originally used paternity testing, DNA kits now prove to be popular gifts and apart from parental surprises, usually yield unknown 3rd to 6th distant cousins. Even so, the human factor dominates and lies remain powerful disguises. This could be covering up an incestuous/teenage/unwanted pregnancy where the teenager’s mother has passed off the baby as hers.

So here, 52 years later, I am still working on family trees I created half a century ago. It’s been like designing a garden so nurturing, weeding, pruning and replanting under a constantly watchful and caring eye, plus spending variable amounts of time at different stages and reaping the rewards of my labours. As years go by, new names are added visually as “boxes” on the printed tree. A tree with 1,000 names ten years ago might have thirty more names of spouses and children and grandchildren which are visually satisfying. Equally rewarding – within the names of the tree where you click on individual names – are added records: births, marriages, deaths, details of war, travel etc. The greater the world databank grows, there is more opportunity to add information.

The pandemic has pushed us into finding new ways of living, not immediately evident in family trees. At the outset of the first lockdown in March 2020, my village postmistress created a support group on social media. Within days I found myself telephoning five older ladies who lived alone, shielding, vulnerable due to failing health and even with early dementia. I had never met them, let alone heard anything about them. What on earth were we going to talk about? So, I asked them questions, starting with mundane things such as how long have you lived in this village, what/whom brought you here, have you had/grown up with pets. Once I get them talking, the memories pour out, names and places become vivid. I volunteered to make a family tree for each of these ladies and to find a lost cousin. My reward is the joy these ladies have from reconnecting with their families and the joy of insights into personalised English social history.

Out of the blue, I received an email the other day inquiring about a friend’s tree I had created and last added to eight years ago. Did I have any new information to share? This chap, in his 30s, is in Australia. We have time differences to contend with but the thrill and excitement break any sleep barriers – 3am emails and new names are the stuff of life! Had I not revisited that particular tree, I would have missed this nugget: the gentleman in question who claimed to be single on the census record, and to live with his mother until his death in his mid-fifties, had in fact a “wife” and two daughters with whom he lived during the daytime! He returned “home” to his mother’s abode every night after having spent the day “at his place of work”! That information came to light thanks to new records being released. Even though I thought I had everything on this, there is nearly always something further available!

Someone else messaged me with some urgency – when exactly did their grandmother die?  It had to do with her will and the improper allocation of her estate, in which they had been an unknowing beneficiary.

One unsatisfactorily answered question on the 75th anniversary of VE Day ie May 8th 2020 – sent my lockdown year veering in an unexpected direction. Where exactly was my father-in-law on VE Day itself? I knew it was “somewhere in Germany”. That was not a good enough answer for a man who had fought valiantly for his king for six years. I knew he had had an interesting and unusual war. This too in fact is part of our family history and whilst not visible on a tree, perhaps I should write a book about it? So I did. All this knowledge of my in-law’s family gathered over decades must be preserved for his descendants. This is how the Joy of Genealogy has led me to writing his biography and others are in the pipeline.

This passion for amassing the jigsaw pieces of human records offers – the beauty of bestowing them as much or as little time as you can afford, with minimal expense and maximum satisfaction.

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