Don’t Blink in Your Genealogy and Fight Against the Dimming of Our Family Trees
I am not sure where I got my ‘music appreciation’ genes, but the more I study my genealogy, the more I realize my musical tastes are what my mother used to refer to as a ‘Heinz 57 Varieties’. My tastes are wide ranging and diverse. So it was that I found myself listening to a county-western song by Kenny Chesney song, “Don’t Blink”. You are most likely familiar with it, but it opens with the following lines:
“I turned on the evening news
Saw an old man being interviewed.
Turning a hundred and two today
Asked him what’s the secret to life
He looked up from his old pipe
Laughed and said “All I can say is
Chesney continues this song with several verses in which the old man explains how fast our lives move and how quickly things change.
Naturally this got me to thinking about my passion for genealogy and family history.
Genealogy is a marathon
When I talk with folks who are just getting started in their genealogy and family history I always give them my point of view, which is that I see our searches for our ancestors as a marathon and not as a sprint. It is a marathon where our only goal is to set our ‘personal best’. It is not a competition to be measured by how fast we can grow our family trees, how large it is compared to someone else’s tree, etc. Rather it is our effort to do our personal best to accurately research, discover, and document our ancestors and their lives. This, I also explain, means that we cannot constantly sprint though our work, but we should set a pace that we can maintain, that stretches our limits, and that avoids burning out.
There is, however, one big flaw that I constantly find myself fighting in this, this marathon genealogy analogy. The flaw in the concept of keeping a pace and not running a sprint comes with our contacts with our family elders. The sand in the hourglass is constantly running and time is of the essence for us to get all the stories we can, all the knowledge, and all the information we can from each of these elders. Their stories add incredible value and humanness to our genealogy and come as close as possible to making some of our ancestors come alive.
The light that is our family tree
Over the years that I have been working on our family history and genealogy I have actually created, in my mind’s eye, a manner of seeing our family tree that is not in the form of a tree, but rather a huge manor. It is a manner of seeing the families of our ancestry that I particularly enjoy. I see each family branch as a room in a big manor. I guess it actually now is more of a manor or small castle with the number of rooms in it. As each new ancestor is discovered a new room is added to the manor and then as we learn more about them through our research each room lights up brighter and brighter. These well-lighted rooms often cast their light into new areas that help us to find more ancestors and to add more rooms and illuminate those rooms as well. It reminds me of some Thomas Kinkade painting, with a lovely manor with a warm, welcoming, and beautiful light cascading out of their windows. The more we research and understand about each ancestor, the brighter these lights shine. I have to admit that I really love this analogy and enjoy thinking about all my ancestors in this way.
Home, Sweet Home!
However there is another side to this analogy. It’s unfortunate, but the more I understand and acknowledge it the more effectively I can deal with it.
The unfortunate side is this: While I see our ‘family home’ with all its many rooms lit up, warm and welcoming, there is the conflicting phenomenon that I call the continual dimming of portions of our family trees when we lose a family member.
When we lose a family member, instantly a room in our ‘home’ that was just moments ago illuminated, warm, and inviting is cast into total darkness. Our grief makes this room pitch black. All the light is gone and we are left to stumble around in the dark without the help, support, love, and friendship that had found in that room before.
I felt this darkening in my life and my genealogy acutely when my mother recently passed away. She was a source of light for so much of my genealogy work since she was the elder of our family and had always been the ‘family glue’ keeping the family gatherings doing. She knew so many of the old great aunts and uncles, the second and third cousins, and more. Perhaps the best part was that she wanted me to ‘know’ them as well! She, too, relished every discovery I made in our family history and she could help me as no one else with plotting attacks on whatever brick wall I might be confronted with at the time we were visiting. Similarly the Czech pronunciations of family names and villages lightly tripped off her tongue. In her case, not only did the lights go off in her ‘room’, but it seemed as though I could lights going off in room after room as the living connection to those ancestors was broken.
So it was when my Italian father-in-law and mother-in-law passed away. So much knowledge was cast into the darkness.
However, just as when we are suddenly cast into a dark room and it seems as though its darkness is impenetrable, our eyes ever so slowly begin to adjust. The room is still dark, but we can make out certain things. It is never seen with the same clarity or light as when that room was warm and wonderfully lit up, but we do come to realize there is still much there for us.
Our work as genealogists and family historians is to keep these dark rooms as illuminated as we can. We do this with our data and documents, but we do it more so, at least in my mind, with our memories, stories, and if we are truly lucky, photographs.
It is also why we continue to work on our genealogy ‘family manors’. We never know how many secret rooms may be out there that we can’t see for the darkness. We go down dusty, dark passageways, following blind leads, and delving into family history mazes all in the hopes that we will arrive at a previously unknown room in our ‘family manor’. And then when we do find one, we will do our best to bring as much light as we can to that room to help illuminate our ‘family manor’ as much as we can!
So just remember…”Don’t Blink”….