Reflecting on the Journey: Eight Great Grandparents Stories Completed

Tree with moonI 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.

Family History as Time Travel

timetravelAs I embark on the new, exciting journey of exploring family histories, I’d plan to use this little corner of the Internet to collect my thoughts. I currently have a plan to post twice each week: one story of a family member (as I’ve been doing), and one reflection of takeaways for the week on the field of genealogy as I strive to learn and improve.

This week I’ve been continuing to voraciously consume genealogy-themed books, podcasts, and TV shows. I feel like I have dived into a new ocean and want to consume all of it, but know I need to pace myself, enjoy the new waters, and trust that I will get stronger with time.

One thought that keeps returning to me is that despite being a disciplined, responsible, and relatively organized person, my life path has oftentimes been unconventional. I spent earlier years moving to new countries and making new friends, finding new jobs. I was extremely independent and trusted that the universe was a place of open-ended adventures. I still tend to trust my inner voice when making big life-changing decisions.

The heart-pull I felt toward travel was always strong and clear. It’s been many years since I’ve had such a clear intuition of anything. I felt clear intuitions around particular decisions having to do with my children. But I haven’t felt any clear, strong insight about career for a very long time. I’ve had ideas that inspire and excite, of course. Teaching made a good deal of sense. Some business plans have popped into my imagination. But I haven’t felt booming certainty for a very long time. But now, with the discovery of the investigative and spiritual work that comes with genealogy, I feel a similar kind of heart-pull that I did in my youth about travel. I can’t help but notice that it’s indeed a new kind of travel – one without the barriers of time or space.

And so here I begin a new kind of journey in earnest. I’m not sure where it’s leading. Right now I’m a high school Humanities teacher. I teach World History, Hawaiian History, and a handful of other subjects in a small high school in Hawaii. And I love my job. There’s a cautious part of me that says I should wait to express my thoughts on this burgeoning passion until I’ve got more street-cred. But, for me, part of the pull IS about creating. Sharing is about connection, and so I’m compelled to share. There is a very clear voice in my head that tells me that although right now I am green, and am in a place of openness and vulnerability, there is space for me here, and that I have great potential to grow and contribute. So I trust a new kind of process.

I have a very long to-do list. It’s all good. I freaking love lists.

Genealogy Takeaway: History Surrounds Us

As fun as it is to dive head first into our own family history, many of us don’t live in a place directly linked to our family trees. But that doesn’t mean we can’t uncover the rich history all around us. The stories of those who tread on the same ground as you can be just as intriguing as those of your own ancestors, if you listen to them.

Five minutes from where I live on the slopes of Maui, Hawaii, there is a hidden memorial. I’ve taken my kids here to run around and blow off steam, never realizing the history beneath our feet. The park is for Sun Yet-Sen, revolutionary who served as the first president of China. Until I looked and listened, I had no idea that he considered my own town of Kula a second home of sorts. In fact, his brother was known as the “King of Kula” for his influence on the Hawaiians and lavish gatherings.

Sun Yet-sen followed his older brother to Hawaii at the age of 13. He was educated there and later sought refuge in Kula, Maui with his family after his revolutionary activities back in China resulted in threats on their lives. Sun Yet-sen experienced the history of Hawaii unfolding before his eyes with the overthrow of a monarchy. If it weren’t for his formative years in a land of great change, the history of China certainly would have played out differently.