Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas lesson about variables

Some of us are old enough to remember the “good old days” of Christmas tree lights. These were the ones where any defective bulb knocked the whole string out of commission.

Those who had enough patience or lacked sufficient money to purchase the upgraded version underwent the process of removing each bulb in sequence and replacing it with a bulb known to be good. Usually that was sufficient to solve the problem.

However, there was always that complicating factor when two bulbs were defective. That required a significantly more extensive effort. One tested bulb was placed in the first position while the second bulb cycled through the rest of the string. And then the whole process was repeated with the first good bulb in the second position and the second bulb continuing its travel down the line.

This year I came across one of those strings. And, sure enough, it wasn’t working. An odd sense of sentimental loyalty encouraged me to accept the challenge to see if it was salvageable.

The first time through revealed that it wasn’t going to be a simple solve. I was into my two-bulb mode when my husband started chiding me about wasting a lot of time for no good reason. (Don’t you just hate it when someone is rational and spoils all your fun???!!!)

When he saw that he wasn’t going to dissuade me from my errand, he suggested using an ohms meter. Wow! Technology to the rescue!!!

So I took the little probes and tested each of the protruding wires. Several got tossed (remembering to save the bases just in you sense a little over-the-top frugality?). Then I put the proven ones back in the string. But all to no avail.

Obviously, there are additional variables beyond the bulbs. The sockets probably weren’t designed to last the quarter of a century that this string had survived. Neither are the wires terribly substantial. So any one of those could have scuttled the system.

Well, needless to say, I finally took my husband’s advice and threw the antique string in the trash, along with the defective bulbs. But in the meantime, I learned how to use an ohms meter and had a few genealogy-related thoughts.

How many times have we looked for a missing piece of an ancestor’s life’s string and simply can’t find it? How many times is that failure the result of a faulty “fact” which is occupying another location in the timeline?

Perhaps we would be wise—especially if this person is a pivotal one for our study—to go back and verify each “bulb” we have recorded. Is this a fun process? No! But if there is one (or...horrors...even two!) of those erroneous details, wouldn’t it be better to test them and get rid of the nonproductive clues than to continue to beat our heads against a wall that might not even be real?

I doubt that it will often become necessary to throw the whole string away (though some I’ve seen might be better off simply being started over from scratch). But we should at least be sure we haven’t plugged in defective information, because that will throw us off as we continue our search.

Use the “ohms meter” of your mind to be sure there is true connectivity in your understanding. After all, if the jolly man in the red-and-white suit (who knows everything!) has to make a list and check it twice, don't you think we'd be wise to follow his example?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Marching on

Having married a little later in life, the proverbial “biological clock” is a familiar nemesis. But I never expected this latest development.

You know, I’m in serious contention for the famous award of “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” The clearance shelves at the fabric store are one of my weaknesses. And one of my strengths is a vivid imagination of how nicely a certain piece would work up. Or how many outfits could be created with different components made from a very neutral but distinctive color. Plus, there are always the multitudes of quilts that could be created from the scraps. As a result, I’ve been known to purchase entire bolts of particularly nicely priced materials.

Having already prepared five books of record abstracts for publication, you’d think the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of a book would have passed. But there’s this novel that keeps roaming around in my head, fighting to get down on paper. The muse hasn’t agitated the waters yet, so it’s still just a disembodied dream.

And, although most of my friends would never guess it, I’ve always wanted to paint. Not the bedroom walls, you understand, but actual artistic painting. I took a class once, a long, long time ago. The one project from that session that is still around is not quite finished. It was turning out so much better than I had expected that I was afraid to add the finishing touches—putting the leaves on the tree. So I decided to leave it at very, very, very early spring, before any of them started peeking out.

Intriguing recipes have always caught my eye. I have files full of them. I still copy one down every once in a while. But a few years ago it suddenly occurred to me that we use the same basic dishes over and over, and I haven’t opened those files except to insert a new candidate. They will probably go out in the massive trash dump when it comes time to clean out the house.

But I’m already starting to do a mental housecleaning. I’m beginning to understand that some of the things I’ve always wanted to do will most likely never get done. Priorities are being reset, with things of an eternal nature coming out distinctly on top. And, of course, family history runs a close second to husband and children (though they might think they win only in theory, not in practice).

The pressures that are tapping me on the shoulder now are more like, “Will I ever finish getting my notes in order?” “How can I get a week away to dig into those court records in that courthouse basement?” “Which of all these people with the same last name are related to my guy?” “Does he have any sisters who have disappeared into matrimonial obscurity?” “Where is that one elusive clue that will finally tell me who his parents are???”

Tick, tick, tick. Please just leave me my hands (to type), my eyes (to read), and my brain (to interpret and formulate and guess and pray). And most of all, pretty please, just a few more good years.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Artifacts vs. Legacies

As genealogists, we spent an ample amount of time in cemeteries. Here we see the last tangible evidence of many of our ancestors.

But this morning, I am thinking about the other things we leave behind. You see, we are installing a new garage door. The other one lasted for more than a quarter of a century and held several memories. An old wooden door with four windows, it had been the recipient of an unkindly bouncing basketball which dimmed one of its lights. For several years, a scrap piece of fabric provided a patch (and a rather odd appearance) before I finally realized that heavy plastic would not be as good as the original glass but would at least look better from a distance.

So as we were working on the new door this morning, I was observing the floor of the garage. There was evidence of several painting jobs, one of which had probably caused a few bad words to fly when a substantial spill somehow exited the bucket. The floor at the front still holds remnants of oil and other fluids which leaked from our fleet of previously owned cars over the years, ones often needing the attention of the household mechanic.

My husband’s skills made it possible for us to have the house in the first place. We never could have afforded it otherwise. We broke ground five months before our first child was born and moved in two weeks after our second child. Many late nights, Johnie would come out and work on the house after having put in a full day’s work as a private contractor. He reflected later how frustrating it was for him to see several houses in the neighborhood start and finish during the time it took to build ours. And when I later sold Avon through that same neighborhood and described where we lived, the comment was often, “Oh yes, the house that took so long to build.”

That second daughter arrived two weeks before her due date. Because of her unexpected appearance, we weren’t completely prepared to move in. For one thing, my husband hadn’t had time to install the window screens. For the first week in August of a very sultry Virginia summer, that was not a good thing. I feel like I already know what the plague of flies is going to be like, though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale!

The first winter we were in the house, we heated the entire edifice with an Earth Stove in the basement. We closed in the laundry room around it, thus creating a plenum of sorts. We burned the stove hard, the heat rising through holes in the floor which would eventually become part of the a/c system. As you can imagine, it was not a very efficient set-up. We found that the heat just didn’t make it to the family room. So we hung a blanket over the doorway for the duration of the winter. And I’ll never forget the night of a very severe freeze when I could see the concern on my husband’s face. The idea of bursting pipes in a new house simply wasn’t very comforting to him.

Now we have lived here for 27 years and raised five children and a cat—the former of which were very much planned for; the latter of which, not so much. We had reached the point where we could leave the door to the basement stairs open when the two older girls returned home from a sojourn out west, bringing the feline with them. I guess it’s just as well, because now that same benefactor who brought the cat (and has since moved on without him) has graced us with a granddaughter and is expecting another one in February. We may never be able to leave the basement door open again! But that’s OK. The grandchildren are worth any inconvenience.

The old bureau which I had bought from a former roommate for $10 was the practice slate for our children when they hadn’t yet learned the lesson that pencils went only with paper. Of course, before painting the dresser and the walls of the room in which it was housed, we had to take pictures of the stick people with very large bodies and even longer legs, little messages prompted by irritations over having three girls in one room prior to the finishing of the basement, and even labels for what belonged where during a period of super organization (which probably didn’t last too long).

If they ever demolish our home, they’ll find measurements on the two-by-fours, notice a ton of nails (the inspector said he’d seen overbuilt houses before, but nothing like ours!), and maybe even observe that the bathroom/hallway wall wasn’t totally plumb because my dad had helped put it up during a visit and Johnie had left it. I doubt that much of that will count as a valuable artifact to those living at that time. And all the memories will have left with the last member of our family to inhabit the home.

But what may remain, even though housed in another residence, will be some of the habits, the principles, and the little traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. It is important to me that my cupboards be organized because my mother had the same policy. (I haven’t snooped through my married daughter’s kitchen yet, but I suspect I know basically what I would find.) I imagine that the cadence with which I read a book to my granddaughter is similar to my mother’s, and possibly her mother before her. And it is very touching to me that the bathing dialogue my daughter uses with her daughter sounds very similar to the one I remember using with her.

Will they take the time to read the volumes of journals and personal histories I will have hopefully prepared by the time I’m no longer here? Maybe not. I’m not even sure what they’ll do with the file drawers filled with multitudes of folders filled with papers that are very important to me (organized or not!).

But there will be a legacy nonetheless—a legacy written in “the fleshy tablets of the heart.” That, after all, will probably not only suffice but wind up being the most important one.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

No generic ancestors---

My experience with family history extends over four and a half decades now. (As I may have pointed out previously, I was very, very young when I began!) And I have just recently begun to recognize something about my mental approach to this burgeoning collection of ancestors and relatives.

Perhaps I began thinking about it because I once heard that one of the most romantic actors in our cinematic past had a rather hefty case of halitosis (a nice way of saying bad breath). Imagine! And so you begin looking at the attractive faces on the screen and thinking, I wonder if he/she wears cologne. If so, what kind? I wonder whether they chew with their mouths closed. I wonder if they snore. I wonder if they leave their socks on the bedroom/bathroom/family room floor. I wonder if they are ill tempered. I wonder if they get along with their family members. I wonder what they think about when there’s nothing else going on. Do they like cats or dogs or neither?

Just a little side note here—My husband always maintains that if you like a celebrity, you should make no attempt to get to know him/her better since you stand a pretty good chance of being disappointed. Because he worked for many years in the music field, he has stories to back up his position. Happily, there are some exceptions to that rule. But in general, we should probably be hanging our admiration hats on hooks (and heads) much closer to home.

Many of us spend uncounted hours trying to find out more about our ancestors. And yet for how many of us have all those names become a flat combination of letters and numbers on our family history forms? Are they more like the detail-deprived silhouettes used in many of the social Web sites? In all our studies and searchings, have we forgotten that we are dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings?

This was probably brought home to me when I finally saw a picture of one of my third-great-grandfather’s children. An older descendant had sent me a picture of this woman’s father several years ago, so I was already familiar with the overly large ears, the piercing eyes hooded by a slanted eyebrow ridge, the square chin and strong jawline. But, startlingly, here was a feminine version with the same general features.

We can continue to ask questions—What did her voice sound like? Did she have a wry sense of humor that might have turned up the corners of her somber-looking mouth just seconds after the photographer’s shutter clicked? What kind of a wife and mother was she? Sadly, it is unlikely that we will be able to obtain the answers to those questions here unless someone kept some kind of a surviving record. (By the by, when was the last time you sat down and wrote a detailed description of one of your family members???)

But simply admitting that there are answers generates more questions. Complex interpersonal relationships are not a 21st-century development. And since it is often difficult to discern accurately the underlying currents motivating living people, it is imperative that we withhold judgment when we see events transpire in the lives of those who cannot even be observed. All conclusions are tentative at best.

So when a husband deserts his wife, we must allow for the possibility that he might have been self-centered or she might have been a scold. We see this problem being played out during the current scandal over the sports personality who was unfaithful to his beautiful wife. Commentators marvel over and over again that his straying is totally incomprehensible given the beautiful wife. Call me jaded, but according to all I have observed there is no direct correlation between compatibility and either fame or beauty!

Similarly, the son or daughter who got left out of the will or received a minimal monetary allotment may have fully merited that final reprimand because of blatant irresponsibility...or worse. On the other side of that equation, there are very few (read “no”) perfect parents! One of my relatives observed that she had determined that she was going to be a great housekeeper because her own mother’s disorganization had driven her father crazy. (And I’ve often wondered if those cycles continue down through the generations.)

My husband says that he remembers that in his grandparents’ world, the man ruled the roost. No doubt, many times that relationship wound up being less than sensitive according to current standards. His own great-grandmother had eight children—all born 16 months apart or less (mostly less)—before she died during the last pregnancy. However, as poor as her husband was, he buried his deceased wife in her new coat, her infant cradled in her arms.

Seven years later, the widower married a woman who shouldered the responsibility for the surviving motherless children and eventually bore eight children of her own. What were those seven intervening years like for him? How did he sustain his family? How did his second wife fit in? Was she happy in this setting? Did they have the same “blending” challenges faced by modern step-families? Or did the demands of survival not allow time for that?

Obviously, I think it is imperative that we exercise judgment cautiously, for both the living and the dead. Our progenitors were real people, composed of faults and flaws, character and quality, and unlimited combinations of each. My husband once asked me what I would do if, after having devoted a huge portion of my life to researching my infamous 3ggfather, I met him and discovered that he really wasn’t a very likable person. I’ll have to admit that the thought gave me pause; however, it has not diminished my determination to find out more about him—warts and all.

Yes, there will probably be some surprises, maybe even some disappointments, when we finally participate in that great reunion. But just as we learn in mortality to love very flawed individuals, I am confident that the same process will play out there—except that we may then see much more clearly all the elements which contributed to the realities we encounter.

In the meantime, perhaps we should remind ourselves constantly that


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A side trip...

This set of two blogs is not strictly genealogically related. They were written in the emergency room on Friday morning, November 20.

* * *

Then comes the telephone call you always dread. “There’s been an accident.” This time it’s the son who’s a motorcycle policeman. He’s already had one motorcycle mishap off duty. And he was unwittingly the first responder when his dad was involved in a collision a few years before that.

I noticed that I was still humming a silly Christmas song a few minutes after the call came. Reality sometimes takes a while to get through. The call to his sergeant brought no response, nor did the call to the emergency room.

Deciding that I was just going to have to drive in, my mind finally started working, but in the wrong direction. I began to imagine all the things that might have happened and became somewhat desperate. Let me reassure you that 911 won’t give out any information, even if it is the patient’s mother who is calling.

Because I was driving a little too fast, I started defending myself. “My boy is hurt.” Surely the official world would understand. A fleeting thought went through my mind—how many of the drivers of neighboring vehicles had a similar concern clawing at their sanity?

Finally, I regained my senses and asked the most reliable Source. Being subsequently reassured and comforted, I continued the trip to the hospital in relative peace.

The son wasn’t feeling so peaceful by the time I arrived. X-rays revealed a double break just above the left ankle, both spiral and slightly displaced. A hearty expression of gratitude for those fancy, knee-high leather boots which provided some much-needed protection against a compounding of the injury.

Surgery tonight, recuperation, but nothing life threatening. Not a pleasant experience, but bearable.

On my way back into the hospital following a trip outside, I saw a woman coming from the parking lot with a “Sorry” game under her arm. Since we wound up in the elevator together, I asked her if she was going to see someone who needed to play. “Yes, a grandson in intensive care. He has cancer.”

I thank Thee, Heavenly Father, for bones that can heal.

* * *

Not being accustomed to the ER clientele, I found myself bombarded by an unfolding drama in the next cubicle while I waited for my son to return from his x-rays. The sounds emanating from behind the protective curtain were disturbing...a revelation to me of destitution and despair in their more escalated forms.

I know of people who experience depression when their lives are relatively positive. Here was a sufferer who seemed to have nothing hopeful in life to counteract the pain. The responses reminded me of a wounded, cornered animal.

Whether the patient’s own choices contributed to the offending circumstances is obviously unknown. But these conditions seemed desperate, perhaps even insurmountable. How could life become that horrendous?

One of the physicians went in to talk to the patient. I was impressed by his kind calmness in the face of verbal rejection. He actually seemed to make some progress, unlike a later interrogator who appeared only to revive the violent emotions.

We got moved to a quiet room shortly thereafter. I never saw the patient’s face, but the aural memory of anguish will remain with me for a long time. How much suffering must exist in this world, much of it hidden behind other curtains which we hesitate to draw back.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Which way did he go, George?

I can’t now remember what kind of a baked item it was, but when we were growing up Mother made something that sometimes had a little curly-cue on the top, kind of like a Dairy Queen cone but not so looped. Since we were kids, we created a game associated with these edibles. It became common for us to say, “He went that-a-way!” and point in the direction the topknot was headed. In our fertile minds, it had become the leavings of a dog surprised (and subsequently scared off) in the act of relieving himself. (Sorry for the rather crass reference so early in the morning!)

But as I look at the many surname files I’ve created on my computer, I kind of think we should develop some kind of a system to let us know what direction we were taking off in when we started pursuing some of these obscure surnames...and why. It might save a lot of confusion later on.

For example, last night I wound up pursuing the surname OSTRANDER. That was interesting because it was a line that did move to Colorado, originally from New York and then Illinois. And there was a girl in my high school with that last name, which obviously prompted a curiosity about whether or not she might have come from this particular line.

So later today I will probably create an OSTRANDER surname file. However, unless I make some helpful notes at the beginning of the file, I’ll have no idea why I was interested in the OSTRANDERs.

Consequently, may I suggest (for all of us who don’t already do something similar) that at the very beginning of a trip along another branch of the family tree that we leave some indication of why we’re going? A simple note like “I began researching the OSTRANDERs because I learned that George W. MINKS, grandson of David SCOTT, Sr., married a Mary E. OSTRANDER in 1885.”

That way we won’t have all these miscellaneous twigs floating around in our files which leave us wondering how they’re supposed to be grafted back into the tree. We’ll know “which way” our minds were headed when we suddenly took off in a totally new direction.

Just a thought as we begin a new month!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bait the hooks; enlarge the circles; find the edges first

Earlier this evening, I described the fatigue my husband and I were experiencing as similar to having been dragged through a knothole. Quite frankly, I have no idea who in the distant past had used that phrase in my hearing, but it is very apt at this moment.

The past 12 days have been peppered with a lot of traveling. The first occasion was a trip to California for the Redding Family History Expo.

On the surface, the excursion didn’t start out all that well. Never before have I had to spend the night in a major airport...not even in a minor one! But I now get to add that to my repertoire of experiences, whether I like it or not—and mostly I didn’t, except for subsequent reports that the weather in Sacramento was terrible the night I should have arrived. So, in retrospect, I was very glad to have been firmly planted on the ground instead of tempest tossed in the air!

However, the post-Expo part of the trip was more than ample reward for having endured the initial complications. I got to spend some time with a distant cousin whom I had previously met, renew a relationship with a first cousin whom I have known (though distantly) since childhood, and then become acquainted with a totally new cousin and her mother. I also visited the cemetery where my 2ggfather is supposed to be buried.

Complications arose here too in that (a) I was given a block for the burial which apparently is not correct (so now I have extensive pictures of block #38 in the Stockton Rural Cemetery in case anyone would like to see what it looks like!), and (b) the new cousin grabbed the wrong carefully wrapped family Bible to bring with her.

Item (b) meant that she traveled a four-hour round trip and probably wore her mother out just for the dubious privilege of meeting me. Admittedly, the Bible mix-up was a disappointment for me too. However, simply being able to put a face with the name to which I have addressed many requests for assistance was more than worth it. Of course, my two-hour round trip compared to her four-hour one makes that evaluation a lot more difficult on her end!

Fourteen days ago, another distant cousin and I launched a new Web site for our common ancestor. Our hopes (though realistically probably not our expectations) were that a flood of requests would come in, dozens of people asking to be part of the fun. No, not so much!

And yet between those cousin visits last weekend and the opportunity of attending a granddaughter’s wedding in South Carolina this weekend, I have become even more mindful of the reality of family. With all our quirks and flaws, it’s still exciting to enclose a new member in that ever-growing circle of kinship.

Besides, the bonuses of those recent visits were the first picture I have seen of a definite offspring of my 3ggf and several stories which I’d never heard before. Had we not launched the Web site or followed up on contacts, those items would most likely have been floating around in the great sea of knowledge without ever having been reeled in and “hooked” into the appropriate place on the family tree.

So we shall keep casting nets, even though the catch isn’t threatening to swamp our boats. Because every new detail that is added by our associates in the Web site is worth any effort!

I encourage a similar effort in each family. Somewhere out there for most of us are at least a few individuals who have preserved something of our families’ histories. How grateful we ought to be for them and for their willingness to share the piece or pieces they have for the huge puzzle we’re trying to reconstruct. Whether a part of an immense blue sky or the detailed face of an ancestor, all the pieces are worth the effort to locate them.

Even though fatigue sometimes assails us, let’s be sure we regularly hang the “Gone Fishing” sign to give us a little respite from the mundane demands on our time. Let’s figure out ways to rebait our hooks in order to catch a living relative who just might have that critical jigsaw piece in his or her collection and not the slightest idea about where it belongs.

As we work on that puzzle together, we all become protectors of the past, guardians of something most precious to pass along to the next generation. Because, as Anthony Brandt pointed out, “Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The pathway and the goal

Does it seem to you that important events are always complicated by distractions on various levels? For example, as I began to write this, I caught a glimpse of a shadowy shape slipping rapidly across my office floor. Ah ha! The provider of the little mementoes all over my desk has finally put in an appearance. He or she is definitely an abrupt distraction. But just look at the alliteration its presence allowed me in that second sentence! There is always something good about every trial (if we can just look long enough to find it).

So when those challenges arise, I guess we have two general options. We can give up on our efforts to accomplish what is really important, or we can bulldoze our way through the opposition. Perhaps bulldoze is too strong an image, because at times it is enough just to keep inching forward. But if our goal is truly worthy, giving up simply isn’t something we can allow.

No matter what obstacles are strewn in our pathway, we must climb over, around, or under them. Yes, there will be times when our advancing is minimal, perhaps even stopped. Occasionally, we may even find ourselves pushed backward. But that is only an outward position. As long as our minds and hearts are diligent, we will eventually succeed.

During the difficult portions of the journey, how glorious to find that we have companions walking with us. May I share a very special recent experience. On September 9 (2009), I wrote an e-mail to a distant cousin with whom I had corresponded in years past. It was meant to be a “checking in” message, just to see if she had found anything new on the family.

In passing, I mentioned my dream of establishing a Web site where all of the researchers of our family could collaborate. Katina responded that she had that skill and would see what she could do. Many hours later, we are nearing the launch of a Web site that has exceeded even my wildest imaginings.

How grateful I am for Katina’s offering and following through on this huge project. How thankful I am for all those who have corresponded with me, sharing the results of their research. How marvelous the miracles that have brought us all together as members of this interesting family. How we hope that our undertaking will bring even more to an awareness of our kinship, even if the ties are not sanguineous. Sometimes there are siblings of spirit.

So whatever our contribution to this occasionally overwhelming labor of family history, may we make it with a full and dedicated heart. May we share our pieces of the puzzles that draw us ever onward. As we bring our portions, we will eventually see the pattern emerging.

And then one day, we will all be pleased to be reunited with those who made up such a fascinating portrait of an eternal family. That’s the ultimate fulfillment of the dream.

Don’t let anyone or anything convince you otherwise.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Of mice and genealogists . . .

It’s fall in the country. As temperatures begin to drop, the outside critters start looking for a warmer habitat. This year, it seems that at least one mouse determined that our house looked pretty appealing. With the installation of a new garage door in process, it may have seemed like an open invitation!

So we set the traps in the bathroom where I had seen the little critter on two late-night occasions. (In the interest of full disclosure, the sightings were so brief that I was unable to make a proper identification to verify that it was the same critter. And I do believe I deserve some credit for exercising enough self-control to prevent a natural shrieking response which would have awakened my poor sleeping husband in the next room.)

Anyway, a rapidly aging morsel of cheese is sitting there in each of the deadly mechanisms, inviting some attention. So far, the only catch has been my husband’s forgetful toe. It doesn’t appear that any of the target population has had the least bit of interest.

But those traps have prompted some thinking about how we “catch” our ancestors. From my sociology classes (a long, long time ago), I seem to remember studying about how settlements formed around locations where trappers and hunters gathered to exchange their pelts.

When you consider those two operations—trapping and hunting—family historians definitely come down on the hunting side. We have to go out and look for our “prey,” tracing the tracks they left as they traveled through their lives, watching for the tiniest detail that might help us determine which way they went.

But at the same time, believing very strongly that those ancestors continue to exist in a removed but still related sphere, I don’t think all of them are totally neutral about being found. And I am completely confident that they do as much as they can to assist us in our pursuit of them.

Why else would you be encouraged to look all the way to the end of that microfilm when the item you were initially looking for was #2? Why would you be directed to pick up that court record when court records are your unknown territory and you have no idea how to use them, only to stumble literally onto a piece of information which shed new light on an old research question? Why would you be prompted to look at their surname in the index when you had determined to shift your focus to another family because they were being too stubborn. Why are there some ancestors who won’t let you go, even though you’ve spent the majority of your life working on them without seeming to make much headway? Why are the mysteries so completely tantalizing that we sometimes forget to eat (and likewise fail to feed our families)?

Oops! I think I just realized something. While we’ve been hunting our distant family members, it seems that they’ve effectively trapped us! It's a little like the coquettish female who encourages her chosen young man to pursue her until she catches him!

Ah-h-h-h, how clever they are! And here we thought we were the smart ones!!!

Monday, October 5, 2009

'Tis a Puzzlement!

So I really want to all genealogists carry the puzzle addiction gene? I mean, really, if you can't walk by a pile of jigsaw pieces without stopping, don't you think there's a problem? And isn't there something wrong with people who actually get quietly excited when they see a form with blank spaces in it (as long as they're confident they're going to know the answers that go there?). Now, I'm not saying that all the school forms at the beginning of the school year were a delight, but give me an incomplete family group sheet and an interested correspondent and I'll be content for half an hour!

Even my little hand-held electronic game holds some kind of power over me. It's a simple game of fitting descending shapes to complete a line, which then disappears. (My children could tell you the commercial name, but that's not important to me.) You know the game's always going to win; it's just a question of how many lines you can delete before it does.

What makes that fun? relaxing? Others wouldn't give it a second glance. Those into the bloody war games would find it infantile. But for me it is like the sherbet that cleanses the palate before the next tour of duty, the next task that needs to be completed in the day.

So I really do want to know. Am I weird or what? (My children do not have permission to answer that question!)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pathos revisited

I just finished writing the story of my second-great-grandfather, William SCOTT. I have been trying to learn about him for years—perhaps not so intensely as his father, but years just the same.

And as I finished, I realized that I knew virtually nothing about his life. The first peg in the board was his marriage at not quite 20 years of age. His first child was born about a year and a half later, a daughter. But then that daughter died at 18 months, a very tender age. (I have a granddaughter who is almost that age now. How could we bear to lose her?) Three months after that, his oldest son was born.

The children came regularly, about every year and a half at first, spacing out a little more toward the end. The other children would live, except for the last. She lived for a month and two days. And that information was chiseled on her tombstone—one gets the impression that every word might have been an attempt to keep her longer, make sure she wasn’t forgotten. And she wasn’t. Because of that one stone in an old cemetery in the middle of an Iowa field watched over by a very humble church building. She was there with her older sisters, although William never knew about that.

But what was it that drove him to California, away from his family? Was Elizabeth feeling deserted, and thus the story that he had died? Surely the mail system worked, even if California was still somewhat primitive. Or, in more kindness and justice to her, was that a later creation by someone else? What motivated it?

And speaking of motivation, why did William continue to work so hard. The estate he left was not insignificant, considering the times. What had he said (and to whom) that conveyed the existence of a family somewhere, even though it was not a detailed report. What did he think about in his last illness. What regrets wove through those last hours?

Well, one day we’ll know all those details. In the meantime, we just keep looking for more pegs on which to hang the events of his life.

Darn the disorganization...full speed ahead!

Preparing materials for the launch of the new Web site "Descendants of David SCOTT, Sr., 1791-1866" has brought into heightened relief several impressions which have previously flitted through my brain. Primary among those is just how weak my organizational skills are!

I thought I had a pretty good filing system set up. Oh yes, there were those folders labeled "Genealogy to File" stuffed to overflowing with miscellaneous papers. And there are notebooks from research trips—some of which have been transcribed, others which no doubt contain very important material which has yet to be entered in its proper place.

Add to the mix the three active computers and the two back-up drives from now-defunct computers, each with their own files—some of which are the same, some of which are different. Do you begin to see a problem developing? We will not even entertain the possibility of a massive computer failure which could wipe out hundreds of hours of research results in a nanosecond. No, hard copies do not yet exist of most of it.

However, the most serious complication of all is the Anti-Genealogy Gremlin. He’s the one who is hiding that 1992 letter from the cemetery describing where David Sr.’s son William SCOTT is buried, how he came to be there, and what caused his death. I can tell you that it was printed on cream-colored paper and had a picture logo across the top. But can I find it? No!!! I’m sure it’s somewhere, but where?

Even more frustrating is the fact that I can’t find the land certificate for the Missouri land David Sr. bought, upon which son Andrew later settled. I know I had it just a few days ago because I scanned it and sent it to Katina. But when she asked me to transcribe it because it was difficult to read, I discover that it has disappeared into thin air. The Gremlin strikes again!

And I know I read just within the last week an e-mail from a woman in California (probably the one who helped me obtain the estate papers for William) telling me that she had gone by the cemetery office and reread the entry giving William’s cause of death. It was slightly different from the missing letter, whose sad description of “consumption and chill” is forever seared into my memory (how sad is that? to die alone thousands of miles away from your family of tuberculosis and being cold!). I’m pretty sure it was something like “congestion and chill,” but it would certainly be nice to have her exact words.

I think the Anti-Genealogy Gremlin (shall we just call him AGG) is also responsible for the cluttering up of our schedules with things like cooking and cleaning and laundry and time with family and making some money to support one’s genealogy habit. So many of those things pale in importance when we consider the eternal nature of our efforts to reconstruct these families and preserve their stories. But somehow, not everyone in the living family sees things the same way!

After being involved in family history for four and a half decades, I guess it’s not incomprehensible that there would be a lot of material floating around. But this is ridiculous! I have begun trying to establish a “Best” file in which I store the “primary” copy of each of those files, planning to add additional fragments in as they are located. I’m trying to figure out how to file things so I can find them again (if the AGG ever relinquishes his hold on some of those important papers). But looking at the scope of the project, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll live long enough to complete it—and I’m not even that old!

I took a class once which said that you should never go to sleep until you have transcribed and filed all your research materials you found that day. Easy for him to say! But I suppose that is the message I feel driven to relay to all of you fellow researchers who may be struggling with the same overwhelming piles of paper. We must do better!

Is it possible that the AGG has access only to those papers we lay aside, thinking “I’ll file that in a minute...but I’ve got an idea for something I want to look up!” Can he only rifle through the stacks of materials that seem to accumulate so easily at various locations throughout the house—in the office, on the dining room table, beside the recliner?

If so, we must beat him. We cannot allow him to thwart our worthy efforts. Whatever it takes, we must preserve our research and make it usable for those who follow after us!

Oh yes, how about the nine boxes of assorted materials that one of our cousins just received from the children of a deceased researcher! Among the Green Stamps and old newspaper ads, there are undoubtedly gems of information which we’re hoping to discover (if our diligent cousin doesn’t lose her mind first). But wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it had all been organized into files, with narratives of conclusions or suppositions or questions all spelled out? Apparently, the AGG travels all the way to Washington State!

Considering the gravity of this situation, may I make a suggestion. Let’s make war on he who strives to defeat us. And let’s not let him win the first battle, which is indeed in the mind. He would like to convince us that the task is simply too big, that we’ve already lost control of our collection and there’s no way we’ll ever regain it.

It has to be done step by step, page by page, loose paper by loose paper, file folder by file folder. When we find a really unusual record and can’t figure out why we looked for it, let’s flag it somehow. And then when we come across the entry which had inspired that search, we can go back and write down our reasoning.

Finally, let’s remember all of that determination when we go forward. Let’s pledge each other that we will do our best to be better, to file promptly, to record our evaluations and assumptions while we have those little flashes of insight and understand something new. Let’s not allow the AGG to convince us that we’re too tired to file tonight, that we need a vacation from this work, that later is always better.

Now is the battle! And although there are other very important conflicts raging around us, may we remember that we are working toward eternal goals. May we keep in mind those who loved each other and have somehow gotten lost and are very much longing to be found.

So even though the AGG is nipping at our heels, we must go forward to victory! (The drama is intentional!)