After eleven years on the staff at NEHGS, I finally had to face the fact that I had never investigated my own family history. Colleagues had urged me to undertake my own genealogy, and I always said I would, absolutely . . . some day in the future. And so it went, year after year — my ancestry was always something I’d trace later, when I had more time, when things calmed down a little at work and at home, when I could really dedicate myself to it. As any of us who’ve made that “when things calm down” promise to ourselves know, things never calm down.
Finally it was a series of questions from my six-year-old daughter that made me take action. At dinner last month, she began asking about our family. “Where were your parents from? What about their parents?” I answered as best I could, distracted by my two-year-old, who likes to surprise us with flying food when we least expect it. “My parents were both from Massachusetts. My father’s parents are also from Massachusetts, and my mother’s parents are from Prince Edward Island.” “But what about their parents? Where are they from? Are we Irish? What am I?” I noticed her voice rising and saw she was genuinely upset not to know the answers. And suddenly I remembered that feeling, when I was her age, of yearning to be part of something bigger than myself, of anchoring myself in a network of ancestors, of ethnic tradition and identity.
To a little kid, knowing family history makes the incomprehensible weight and complexity of the past seem manageable—this is my family, which stretches back through time, and I’m part of a long line of people like me. And looking at her sweet, eager face I realized I wanted that too — I yearned for that connection with my ancestors, all the people who struggled and rejoiced and married and died to create me and my beloved little ones. So I promised my daughter then and there that I’d find out about our family, and I’d tell her all about it. And that’s how, at a publications team meeting, I found myself volunteering to write a series of blog posts on getting started in genealogy. Now I absolutely have to follow through, no excuses this time. Luckily, I’m surrounded by experts, so I knew just where to go to get help.
So stay tuned — next week I’ll discuss what it was like to get started with a shameful lack of names, dates, and facts. (Spoiler: It was surprisingly easy.)