Surprising Ways Our Stories Unfold

When I was thirteen, my mother became obsessed with genealogy. She dragged me and my sister and our grandmother on a tristate research trip through time, ticks and mountain women as we rifled through dusty courthouse records and stumbled through overgrown, dilapidated graveyards. I assure you these are not activities on any thirteen-year-old’s bucket list, but regardless of how I felt in those early days, that adventure inspired me to write Songs from the Canary Cage, and genealogy was a part of my life from that moment forward.

Mom’s enthusiasm never waned, and through the years she constructed beautiful binders chocked full of family trees, copies of old records and entertaining stories. But the content of those binders were scattered throughout her house after a series of strokes left her confused and disoriented. In our mad rush to pack and move her back home so we could care for her, we scooped up and boxed every scrap of paper and allowed nothing to be thrown away, and feeling like we had the information somewhere, I sort of put it out of my mind as we helped her through her final days.

After we lost her, I realized there were so many questions left unanswered. Even if I found every one of her records, I don’t know enough about her. She wrote some neat stories about her childhood, but not enough.

It was at this point that I began to ask my dad a million questions about his childhood and early years with Mom, and I discovered a man I never knew existed. A hitchhiker who once worked in a bakery. A teenager who kept the family’s team of mules out too late on a joyous hayride. A child who captured and sold frogs to the local butcher to make enough money to buy candy bars. These are stories I never would have known had I not asked and had he not begun to record all that he can remember.

Then a conversation with my aunt piqued my curiosity and caused me to log onto Ancestry.com. Within days I discovered that some genealogical trails came to a short and frustrating end while others took me to the first British colonies in Virginia. Yet another trail took me, somewhat skeptically, back to 80AD to a man by the name of Trojan Godwulf who hailed from somewhere in Eastern Europe. The jury’s still out on that one, but while I was researching one of my dad’s lines, I stumbled across a user with an interesting tree. I sent a message to this user. We exchanged a few messages and then …

I got a message from her noting that she realized who my father was and where I lived and, oh by the way, two of her children live near me, and I should give her daughter a call sometime and let her know I’m her second cousin. I was stunned to read her daughter’s name, because I had known this wonderful woman for nearly ten years. I had lunch with her. I worked on nonprofit boards with her. And now, I shared a blood line with her!

Genealogy is a hoot. And it’s important. Family history sheds light on a story that is shared by all of us. And research shows that people who know their history are generally happier. They know where they came from and why their parents and grandparents were the way they were and how they are linked to this life. They are grounded in a way that others are not.

Decades ago, my mother dragged me across this country to a world I never knew existed, and some day I’m going to find and reconstruct all of the contents of my mother’s binders, but I am not going to wait for that day. I’ve begun to build my own. And so should you!

To know and record your family history is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your descendents and to yourself. But when you do, don’t forget to provide some research material on yourself. A half-century from now, your life will be very interesting to someone.

So grab a pen - or pull open a laptop - and start writing the story of you.  And if you publish it, it just might be my next favorite read!

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