I set out to write a life story for each of my eight great grandparents, sticking to a one-week deadline to complete each story.
Family history has been a newfound interest of mine for about a year, and I thought in order to take my research to more sincere and disciplined places, I should immerse myself in one project at a time. In addition to researching documents, searching newspapers, researching local history, and interviewing family, I also thought it was important to take the time to write narrative reports of my findings. I didn’t want to simply gather a collection of disparate facts without any context or synthesis.
In retrospect – and the conventional wisdom from professional genealogists – is that I should have started with myself, then branched out to parents, then grandparents, before getting to the life stories of my great grandparents. This is mostly to ensure you have the correct identity of your subject and are not running full speed ahead down the branch of a family tree without being certain that someone belongs there in the first place.
I do intend to write stories for each of my grandparents and parents eventually, but starting with my great grandparents was the challenge I was looking for – I had just enough clues to begin with, I was able to interview older family members while they’re still alive in order to collect their insights and memories, and I was able to flesh out a story over outlines I could be fairly confident of. These eight grandparents led me to unexpected places: immigrant communities, farms, cities, prison!, plenty of loss, a home for unwed mothers, France in World War I, a one-armed philandering husband, a fiddler at a barn dance. I feel like I know a little better each of these eight people whose struggles, sacrifice, and very existence brought me the gift of life. By knowing them a little more than I did before this quest I feel connected to something much larger than myself. I’m riding a wave that was once cloudy beneath me, and now is illuminated. I want to keep going.
When Stephen King discovered some of the stories deeply hidden within his own family tree, I love the analogy he used. He said it was as if he was on a stage, and different parts of it were being lit up to reveal previously unknown set pieces.
Since starting, I’ve been trying to decide on where to go from here. The stories, of course, are works in progress. I will circle back to them in time, as my research experience grows and I gain new insights. But for now, I want to keep growing as a genealogist by branching out into different kinds of research and writing projects. It is recommended that an amateur genealogist log 1,000 research hours before considering more serious steps in the world of ancestry work.
So while I work toward those hours, I have a few ideas in mind. I will use this space to share my progress and document the journey. Next week I’m going to Arkansas during the Dust Bowl.