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!)