Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tracing Family Lines

When I was a child, family ties were murky. On random holidays, we would gather in some cousin’s yard in a loose flock. The adults would drink too much beer and the kids would run in circles, weaving in and out of tall bodies, tagging each other with reaching fingers.

It wasn’t important how we were related. We answered our elders with the obligatory Southern “ma’am” and “sir.” We called everyone older than us “uncle” or “aunt,” though they were much more likely to be our first cousins once removed.

It was only confusing in school, where classmates with small families don’t struggle to understand the concept of aunts and uncles. With a vast sea of local relatives, it was difficult for my young mind to grasp that your aunt was only the sister of your mother or father. In my world, she could just as easily be my grandmother’s first cousin. Family ties were foggy like that.

I started researching my family history in 2012. A friend had informed me that was offering a 30-day free trial. He had traced his family tree back to English royalty.

With a simple 30-day free trial.

What did I have to lose?

The better questions was: What did I have to gain?

I dove into the Jones line first, hoping to find a great-grandfather who abandoned his family in 1931. The man had disappeared like a vapor. No census records. No death certificate. It was like he walked off the edge of the world, leaving behind three children and a disgruntled wife. It’s hard to chase a ghost. I’ve often joked that maybe my great-grandmother buried him in the backyard. Weirder things have happened.

Thirty days isn’t long enough to trace centuries of relatives. What was supposed to be a little month-long project of curiosity instead turned into crazed obsession. I purchased an ancestry membership, got lost in census records, dug into family trees. In that first furious foray into family lineage, I discovered a link to British baronets, my grandparents’ marriage certificate, and my great-grandmother’s birth mother.

But when I emerged with birth records and passenger lists, the sweat of battle still glistening on my brow, I realized my efforts were largely unappreciated. Having expected glory and praise (or at least a modest pat on the back) from my relatives, I was disappointed to find that nobody seemed to care.

I announced we were descended from the Bickley Baronets on social media, tagging aunts and cousins with the amusing (if not earth-shattering) news. While I grasped the triumph of this discovery firmly in my hand, waving it like a victory banner, not one person so much as “liked” my discovery. When I told my dad, he grunted and turned up the volume on the television. Reruns of Gunsmoke were apparently more interesting to him than family history. I couldn’t relate.

My grandmother was worse. When I informed her I had found her grandmother, she was mildly interested. But only until I unraveled the story for her as I sat cross-legged on her living room floor. A precious family story had been passed down, one of how an infant (who would become my great-grandmother) was pried from the stiff dead arms of her intellectually disabled mother. But I had found her mother on the 1920 census, alive and well and working as an office clerk in Maryland. This piece of evidence would suggest she was neither dead nor intellectually disabled when my great-grandmother was adopted.

My grandmother drew her lips into a thin hard line, and shaking her head slightly, said one cold word.


I had been shut down but not entirely demoralized.

Instead of giving up, I buried into birth records and death certificates like a mole, digging in the dark, keeping to myself. It really didn’t matter if anyone acknowledged what I was doing. I  needed to trace the intricate lace of my family lines. I was driven to understand how I came by the DNA that gave me blue eyes, long fingers, and wide feet. Why could I roll my tongue and carry a tune? Could my great-grandfather? What about his mother?

It was an impulse to know myself by knowing them, though they had been reduced to nothing more than names on ancient documents or etched in marble headstones.

But genealogy is hard work. It will unravel your insides and leave you with more questions than it answers. There are probably things you don’t want to know, like how my mother had an aunt and uncle who died of neglect and malnutrition when they were just babies. Research will leave you mourning people you never met. Blood is thicker than water.

Two years ago, my children gifted me with a DNA test for Mother’s Day. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it put an end to the family stories of Cherokee blood. I am boringly European, although my family is anything but boring. That DNA test revealed more family evidence, proving that Maryland clerk was in fact my grandmother’s grandmother. DNA doesn’t lie.

Now I find myself sorting through hundreds of DNA matches, relatives I’ve never met, names and faces of strangers. Deciphering relations is like ciphering impossible math problems.

If my mother and your father were half second cousins, what does that make us?

DNA results have left me more confused. I am less sure of who I am, and I didn’t think that was possible. There were Earth-shattering surprises. The kind that makes the family tapestry seem to unravel at the edges.

I am still the kid weaving her way through a crowd of relatives, wondering which are uncles and which are cousins. Reaching out to tag them with fingers.

“Tell me your story.”

“I thought I knew who you were.”

I thought I knew who I was. But DNA and marriage records and death certificates just muddy the water. It swirls around until I’m lost again.

If I stare at those connecting family lines long enough, the Henrys and Oscars and Catherines that dot the generations swirl in a muck until they run together, forming a blur that sometimes has my father’s eyes.

That blur is me.

I’m still trying to bring myself into focus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Feeling the same way so many unanswered questions I will just document the facts and carry on 😘