I used to poke around on my family tree as a kid, on my mom’s computer full of ancient PAF files. My mom is a world-class family historian.
But I grew up in Los Angeles. I had a love of early American history and American literature, but had never been to Plymouth or Salem or Boston or any of the other places my family seemed to be from. What’s more, it seemed unlikely I’d ever get to. The internet was around, but google wasn’t yet a verb and I didn’t search for the names of these people to see if they were anybody beyond a name and a date.
When I finally did get around to visiting the grounds of my fathers–Massachusetts, mostly–it had been ages since I had paid close attention to the names of those who preceded my Mormon pioneer ancestors, those who had left their heritage and livelihoods behind in New England. I knew beyond the pioneers there were Mayflower Compact signers. I knew some of them lived in Salem, and some of them in Quincy, and some of them in Boston, and some of them other places I was visiting, but I didn’t remember who lived where. I visited Massachusetts three times with only the vague notion of “oh yes, my family is from here.”
Marianne and I are planning another New England trip this fall. For the first time since she’s started her MFA program, her autumn break falls just before her birthday. I’ve been staring at maps, trying to make a long list of anything we might remotely be interested in doing. (I love planning!) On one of my map hunts, I stumbled across a “Stoddard, NH.” I thought it entirely possible these were my Stoddards, so I googled the name of the founder of Stoddard then went to my own family tree to see if he fit in. He didn’t, but it soon became irrelevant, because I noticed what I knew must be a mistake on the line.
You see, familysearch.org is full of mistakes in your family tree–some computer-made, some made by lazy research. In this case, my direct ancestor, Solomon Stoddard, was listed as being married to some Scandinavian woman I had never heard of that I knew did not actually belong in my family tree. So, on a whim, I googled Solomon Stoddard. And I found out a few things. One: he was kind of a big Puritan deal. Two: he was born in Boston, but spent his adult life in Northampton. His house was literally 15 minutes away from Twin Maples, where Marianne and I always stay. WHAT?
Suddenly, in a very real way, my family was alive to me. These were people that lived and died in places I know and love. These were also people who needed someone to go in and fix the lines on familysearch, proving the correct and accurate history as much as possible. The more I read about my family, the more I realized they are entwined in the very places I ache for and long for. Maybe my desire to go back there all the time also has a little something to do with my earthly heritage.
I discovered other things that surprised me, too–like I’m also a direct descendent of Anne Bradstreet. I’m sure of that line, but they’re some other people that show up in my family tree that I’m curious to see if they actually belong.
My mom has spent her whole life working on lines on her mother’s side of the family, who mostly lived and died in the South. I’ve never felt overly interested in doing the research she does, but assumed that some day I’d have to take it up.
Somehow, last night, looking at my dad’s lines, I felt a call to find who was missing from them. These are my people. I see their names in my lines and I get excited! I want to find out more about each and every one of them, not just the famous (or infamous) ones. I want to know where they lived and died and anything more about their lives I can find.
Suddenly, I finally see, it’s as if my own natural interests and passions have prepared me to do the work of finding my family. And I think I’m ready.