JB and I have been putting together a family tree and one thing I’ve learned about Ancestry.com is that using it is sort of like falling into a genealogical rabbit hole where you become obsessed with adding distant relatives until you have a branch that just reads “CRO MAGNON NAMED GROG.” We’ve each spent hours and hours on this thing, which has become a sprawling map of hundreds and hundreds of strangers whose lives are utterly mysterious, save for what small amount of data is available. Births, marriages, children, deaths. All these lives reduced to a collect of beige-colored boxes and lines connecting everyone together.

There’s something called the pedigree view where you can look at the flow chart of your lineage: your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. It is a nearly dizzying sight, to view this graph and try to imagine the complicated series of chance encounters and choices and moments that led to my own existence.

My father’s side is entirely unknown to me; an exotic arrangement of names like Jacinta and Piedad and Vallolita, nearly every single person in New Mexico by way of Spain and Portugal. My grandmother’s family came from Innerwick, Scotland—the Rentons, full of Williams and James—to Belleville, Michigan. Boxes and names stretching back into the 17th century, all these invisible people in some way responsible for the fact that I sit here now, typing.

Strange. And stranger still, in a way, to think of all the might-have-beens. My first marriage, an uneventful dissolution of branches and paths and outcomes. Like some sort of bizarre Polaroid: as that partnership disappears, all those years ago, the eventual vision of my children comes into view. They aren’t directly connected but without one you cannot have the other.

It is soothing, in a way I suppose is not unlike faith, to believe that I am connected to something bigger than myself; at the same time I look at it and feel the inexorable, uncaring progress of time. People live and die so quickly, my god. Lights that blink on and off. Everything they do and achieve, eventually forgotten.

It’s like the juxtaposition of reality and a parent’s view of the world. Where one angle shows everything represented in the same sort of way, and in the other, the entire contents of the universe aligned in order to create to the two little boxes below your name. You can’t help thinking, everything led to this. Everything should somehow stay like this forever.

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Nell
11 years ago

Oh your writing! Just … wow! This entry, and the one I hadn’t read before about your father, just make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love your writing and want to be YOU when I grow up. Your honesty and humor are a wonderful combination and I would just like to say thanks for being a bright spot in my day.

Alley
Alley
11 years ago

Oh, Ancestry swallowed my life for about three months (I’m better now). I spent hours scouring that site, FamilySearch.org (’cause they have better birth and death records for New Jersey, which is where my entire family apparently decided to reproduce and die), Genealogy Bank, and Google. HOURS. Now I’ve hit a dead end, so I key for Ancestry’s World Archives Project and Family Search, to help form databases so that other people can get sucked into their family histories, too.

It is a bit overwhelming to look at the pedigree view: so many little mysteries and names of direct ancestors I’ve only recently learned of, all spiraling down to me. Great for the ego boost, I suppose. :)

TheGoriWife
11 years ago

I know exactly 12.5% of my heritage – my maternal grandmother knows about where her own mother was from (Ireland.) My own mother didn’t know her father save for one meeting in adulthood, and I don’t know my biological father or his family either. I figure one day, during on of those DNA testing sales, I’ll buy if just to see where in the world my genes are from.

(Oh, also, I claim to be Irish. I figure since that 12.5% is 100% of what I know as of now, then for now I’m 100% IRISH!)

Jean
Jean
11 years ago

Beautiful observations.

Aubrey
11 years ago

My dad is obsessed with this stuff, too, and my mom bought him a subscription to Ancestry.com for their anniversary gift, and he’s even MORE sucked in now. But we’re all fascinated by what he’s finding.

Eric's Mommy
Eric's Mommy
11 years ago

Amazing Linda. Genealogy fascinates me.

Nik-Nak
11 years ago

My mom has the tree from her side that goes back several generations. While it is interesting to look at I REFUSE to go any further. I mean, I look at it and can’t help but think, “These people are DEAD! Their lives are OVER! One day I’ll just be a name on a tree!” It’s depressing, dude.

Donna
Donna
11 years ago

Having looked into the abyss, I can say my fathers side came from england, sailed two ships(Hopewell, and Parramore), had indentured servants, traded broad cloth for tobacco, received land for fighting in the revolutionary war (with George Washington, and named a bunch of their kids after him), and my gggrandfather had 23 kids.
My moms side were deported here because when asked if he had stolen the kings pigeons, and denying it, my gggrandfather turned out his pockets and oops! There were feathers….his brother also came, they fought in the revolutionary war, one was taken captive and traded for the brother of a british captain, so he got out alive, and later hung out with Daniel Boone.

When you look too long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you. LOL Good luck!

Tracy
Tracy
11 years ago

Others have mentioned it, but because I agree and have never bothered to say so and also because I can’t imagine it ever gets old to hear it, I also want to compliment you on your writing. You convey things so beautifully and creatively while still managing to be direct and concise. Sometimes it astounds me, like today. Am jealous because my usual writing is crushingly matter of fact yet lengthy, and when I try to be more creative, it reads like bad high school literary magazine.

Anyway, my actual comment is that my Mom is going to bring all her old photographs down when she visits for Easter. I’m going to package hers with mine and have them all digitized.

But I also want her to explain who the hell all the people are since most of her side had died off before I got here or when I was still too young to remember them.

As everyone in my family ages I’ve become paranoid about making sure I understand my ancestry better. Somehow, I just know I’ll end up on Ancestry.com too.

Life of a Doctor's Wife

The penultimate paragraph – wow. I love that feeling too, of being part of something larger, something incomprehensible in its span and depth; something that changes you, that can be changed by you.

Lovely.

Kim S.
Kim S.
11 years ago

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an entry on your blog and thought, not creepily btw, that if we lived in the same town, we would totally hang out. We’re sucked into ancestry.com too and it has caused this thunderstorm of thoughts in my head about who all these damn people are and what do they mean to me, like in my daily life? What influence does one generation have on the next and for how long will that thread weave through? Big thoughts for $24.95/month. I’ve spent a good part of my life estranged from 90% of my family. Makes these questions even more interesting. Gah.

Robyn
Robyn
11 years ago

It seems, by just the few quotes you’ve posted of your Dad’s, that your writing ability comes from him. Do you think?

k
k
11 years ago

i spent an entire summer at the family history center looking up names and linking everyone and finding stories of ancestors before me. it was nothing short of addicting, and i was a teenager. my mom now runs the family history library there in my hometown (must’ve come from her?) and while i love, love, love the histories of my collective family members, i can’t let myself play with it. like i said, it’s an addiction for me. :D

Sara
Sara
11 years ago

Being that I live in New Mexico, where genealogy is a big thing here, you should see if you and your family have any stake in land grants. Land grants are a huge deal and your family could be missing out on something. Considering they are from Spain as you say it is definitely possible.

Judy
Judy
11 years ago

I’m into this too! And totally fascinated by it. I have just learned recently that several generations back my ancestors owned slaves, that one came over from England and settled around Charleston SC in the midst of the 1700s and married someone known only on the genealogy charts as “Indian woman”. One was killed at Chickamauga and three years later his widow died in a chicken coop fire (!!??!!) and my great great grandfather had 23 children – very Duggaresque but it took him two wives to accomplish it. Jim Bob Duggar is aiming to beat him with only one wife.

It was important to me to do this. I have, for most of my adult life, regretted not listening to my grandparents, who actually used to hang out with Harry and Bess Truman, and knew some of the James gang. My grandchildren will probably regret not listening to me. So at the age of almost-69, I am writing it all down.

shygirl
shygirl
11 years ago

Can I just tell you how thrilled I was when I saw that you were getting into genealogy? Because I LOVE IT. Totally addictive! I’m enough of a dork about it that I’m currently making my SO watch Ancestry.com’s TV show with me on Friday evenings. It’s a little heavy on celeb-whoring drivel, but there’s always at least one useful tip in there about what to do when you hit a dead end. (Though I missed the Steve Buscemi episode… gotta go back and catch that one online, I bet it was good :)

.303 Bookworm
.303 Bookworm
11 years ago

And then you come across the diary of your great-great-greats journey by sailing ship for months and bloody months cooped up with husband and three children under five in a cabin smaller than my bathroom as they struggled to get to a new life in a newly colonised country. And suddenly you feel the weight of history. But it’s pretty cool too, you know?

Donna
Donna
11 years ago

Also, I said it then and I’ll say it now, I live in NM and am not above driving hundreds of miles to poke your pop in his eye.
I got your back!

Shawna
Shawna
11 years ago

Wait, what? First marriage? How did I miss that?…

jodie
jodie
11 years ago

^^ Wondering the same thing!! I need to read the archives, didn’t discover Sundry till 2009. Love your writing Linda, thank you!

Kristin C
Kristin C
11 years ago

So well written….it just went straight to my heart.

Alex
11 years ago

Yes.

My Grandmother passed away last week; I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks with her recently, and we went through piles of old black and white pictures: her naming names, me jotting them down on the backsides. I totally *get* this vibe, of being from something much, much bigger, and only for a short, short time.

Angella
11 years ago

Plotting my family tree is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I don’t know if I can. So much broken, so many who came before me that are in my blood line but that I will never know.

You make me want to try, though.

t.cup
t.cup
11 years ago

yeah, i got sucked into mine last week (anything to NOT study), trying to find some names for my gramma. in her fathers family, there were 14 (FOURTEEN. WHO HAS THAT MANY KIDS WITHOUT THEIR INTERNAL ORGANS FALLING OUT?) kids and three of them married siblings from the same family. small town family but not THAT small, surely?

Sienamystic
11 years ago

Heh, I didn’t get into genealogy until I ended up working for the DAR. As an employee, I had access to all their library’s databases and holdings, and did a lot of digging, although mostly on one side of the family because the other side, is a combination of American men who married Spanish women and then moved to the Philippines, and French Jewish people who immigrated to the Philippines. One of the coolest things I found were advertisements for the family store in Providence, RI – big lists of the new fabrics and goods available for sale.

VirtualSprite
11 years ago

I’ve been working on my family history for 15 years now and I never get tired of seeing the records, finding their names and putting a story to their lives. If you really want to have some fun, start collecting obituaries. I’ve learned so much from newspaper clippings… like that my great-great uncle Jim didn’t kill his wife (like the rest of the family assumed) but she actually shot herself. It gave the gauge of the shotgun on the death certificate! Also, my great-great grandparents were divorced. He didn’t die, like she told everyone.

t-cup – That happened in my family, too. I met up with a person in the other family and we laughed about it. But when you didn’t have cars, you didn’t travel so you married your neighbors.

Annie R
Annie R
11 years ago

I live very near Belleville, MI, a lot of my friends live on the lake and I spend most of my social time there-is your grandmother’s family still around?
I went on ancestry.com after watching that ‘Who do you think you are’ show one night and you’re right about the junkie factor. I could easily have stayed online for a couple weeks looking for various family members. One of my aunts on my dad’s side did a huge tree document. You’ve made me curious again so I’ll have to go home and find it!

Gaby
Gaby
11 years ago

I don’t know my biological father or any of his relatives, so I wonder about half of my heritage from time to time. More so now that I’ve had a baby, because I hate not being able to look at him and say “Oh, he looks just like Uncle So-and-So!” It’s weird to not know part of who you are, but I suppose no one can ever *truly* know all of what went into us becoming us, right?

Robin
11 years ago

You should read some Annie Dillard! “For the Time Being” is a good one.

Jess
Jess
11 years ago

Researching the family tree can quickly spiral out of control. My dad’s office has been overtaken by this “simple project” he started.

Also, thought it was interesting, my great-grandparents came from Poland and settled in Belleville, MI! Which is where my grandparents and my mom were raised.

pgoodness
11 years ago

huh. I live in Belleville, MI!! Small world, no??

Mommy Boots
11 years ago

You captured my feelings about the passage of time, about history, about how I feel when I look at pictures of the people who came before me perfectly. Thanks for this beautiful post. I’m new to your site and I look forward to reading more from you.

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