A helping hand

Chris Child helping Jean get started in the 4th floor library at NEHGS.
Chris Child helping Jean get started in the 4th floor library at NEHGS.

Before I began researching my ancestry, I was overwhelmed by the undertaking. It seemed like an impossible task that would take up all my time — trying to make sense of all those great-great-great-greats with their shifting residences, repeating names, and overlapping dates. I’ve always been bad with numbers and dates, and tend to be distracted by anything new and exciting, so my past attempts at uncovering information about my ancestors have resulted in a confusing game of Internet hopscotch through random records I couldn’t really understand concerning people to whom I may or may not have been related. I had convinced myself that I was uniquely ill equipped for genealogical research.

But kind fate reached out a helping hand in the form of my friend and colleague Chris Child. Not only is Chris a really nice guy, he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and a legend in the genealogical community. He offered to help me begin and guide me through my research. I accepted immediately, before he could change his mind.

Later that same week, Chris and I met in the fourth floor library at NEHGS, home of our Vital Records indexes. “I just don’t know where to begin,” I said. But Chris did. He logged onto one of our library computers and pulled up a blank family tree program. “That’s easy,” he reassured me. “We begin with you.”

Step one.
Step one.

Entering that first piece of information felt satisfying. I had finally taken the plunge. But I couldn’t remember the birth dates or places of either parent, only that both were in Massachusetts. Chris was not concerned; he said it was a good opportunity to delve into the Internet databases, by searching for people I’d known whose life events would be familiar. We began with my father, who died when I was twelve. Chris consulted the Social Security and Massachusetts Death Indexes, where he quickly located my father and determined that he was born and died in Massachusetts. Seeing the death certificate was jarring. I felt a rush of love, longing, and tenderness. I knew then why so many people consider family history research an important part of their lives, and also, perhaps, why I made so many excuses to avoid it myself — all these years later, I still miss my parents. Seeing their names in these records is hard. But I’m ready now to turn that pain into something meaningful.

From the information gleaned in the death index, we were able to move to the Massachusetts Birth Index, and then the 1930 federal census. Suddenly the process became very exciting. My tree filled with names I remembered from my dad’s stories — his beloved mother, who died young; his grandfather, a police officer killed in the line of duty. In the space of an hour we went back five generations, adding images of documents for me to peruse later. And finally I felt that thrill I’ve heard my genealogist friends describe all these years — the hour was up, but I could have kept searching all day.

About Jean Powers

Jean provides editing, writing, design, illustration, and creative and strategic concepts for a variety of marketing, development, educational, and outreach projects. She assists on American Ancestors magazine, The Weekly Genealogist newsletter, the Great Migration Study Project, and our Facebook page.

9 thoughts on “A helping hand

  1. In Dick Eastman’s blog recently, he asked the (perhaps rhetorical) question of why we do genealogy in the first place. You’ve just discovered the answer–the thrill of the chase! Way beyond that, these are *our* people we’re discovering, *our* stories we’re connecting with. All of a sudden, it becomes very real, and we need to know more. I hope you went home and told your daughter what you’d learned, since her questions got you started in the first place!

  2. “an impossible task that would take up all my time” That’s true–the search is addictive. I used to do quite a lot of different things before I started this task.

    1. To Jane Coryell. I like how you phrased that. “I used to do quite a lot of different things.” I am so addicted I do collateral lines, too, and I’ve been working on the Coryells in N. J. mwverde@gmail.com

  3. Jean, a beautiful, moving story. Thank you. And welcome to the thrill and satisfaction of learning about the lives of people we are descended from, that sense of connection across time that lets me know a little more about myself.

    I find that’s true even when I am doing research on the family of someone I am related to only by marriage. She mentioned to me that she knew almost nothing about her own family beyond her parents, so I set aside my own research for a while, and found myself surprisingly involved as I learned about her parent’s siblings, and her grandparents, piecing together their lives and tracing her family across the continent. I’ve managed to get back five generations in some of her lines.

    She is as thrilled as you are, and marvels at how much I could learn in such a short time. I am making a chart for her upcoming 98th birthday. (I am not quite consumed by genealogy, though: I am a weaver and spinner and passionate about fibre. I suspect that’s where my biggest addiction lies. But I put some time into genealogy every week. It never gets old. (um, so to speak).

  4. Jean, I understand how busy your life must be with the family. They will keep you grounded. I lost my parents in a car wreck 35 years ago, six weeks before the birth of my first child. Those events made me curious about who we were, and I served the local genealogy society as its newsletter editor. I learned a lot about how-to-do-it from that experience. My growing toddler caused me to give up the post because caring for your living family IS very important. Research continued, however. I know you’ve been bitten by the bug, and will continue – even if only gradually – in the future. Involve your daughter, and she’ll love it too!

    1. Jim, I am so sorry I did not see your kind comments earlier. Thank you so much for your encouraging and supportive words.

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