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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Growing the family tree: In both directions

Many take up the hobby of genealogy when their children grow up and leave home or when they retire. Me, on the other hand, I couldn't wait so long. My interest in history has always been such a part of me, I can't imagine not digging into the story of my family. This has led to a type of balancing act for me - growing the family tree backwards at the same time as I'm "growing" the next generation of the tree: my children.

Photograph privately held by Lisa, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,]. 2009.

Lots of benefits have come from this type of arrangement, of course. Starting earlier has allowed me to know what types of questions to ask my older relatives before they've passed away. (Although you can never start early enough on this one - there are so many relatives I wish I'd sat down and talked with when I'd had the chance.)

Another benefit of tracing the family tree with young children around is the fact that you are never at a lack for good stories to share with them. How much more meaningful a story is when you can tell your child that it was true and happened to their own ancestor!

I'm hoping that my children's proximity to me as I work to uncover our family's stories will give each of them a desire to become genealogists themselves and carry on the work that I've begun, or at least appreciate and be good caretakers of what I've uncovered myself. After all, if they grow up with a mother who fits genealogy into their lives from day one it wouldn't be right not to include it in their own children's lives one day.

Being the genealogist-Mommy has had its challenges. Finding time to fit genealogy into my family's life has often been a struggle. I find that the wee hours of the night or morning are often my best time to make progress on family history projects. Days are often hectic and it is hard to find time to complete most projects, no matter how small. On the evenings when I've discovered something new about our ancestors, it has been fun to greet them in the morning with a, "Guess what I found out about our family tree last night?"

Spending time on the phone is never easy, but I've sometimes made an effort to make a genealogical-phone-call-a-day when I've been working on a particular project that requires direct contact with archives or libraries. Many a call has found me closely covering one ear with the phone and one ear with my other hand while I tuned out a distracting child in the background who had suddenly forgotten that I had asked for the house to be "as quiet as possible for a few minutes while Mommy is on the phone".

Not every genealogical library or archive happily welcomes children. I had to ask for special permission to take my eleven-year-old daughter into the National Archives with me, but what a memorable experience it was for both of us. She received her own personal photo ID and was able to enter the reading room with me to view her great-great-great-great-uncle's Civil War pension file.

I have often squeaked in research when I had the chance. One evening at the local library my older children were in a nearby room at an activity while my toddler was asleep on my lap. I decided to take the opportunity to sit at the computer and spend time on the library's Ancestry subscription. Moments later I discovered a real find: the ship passenger list for the immigrant ancestor of the Cowhey family. It was a moment of triumph - after having heard the family story of Patrick Cowhey's arrival about 1820 as a young teenager, I had found proof that he made his way to New York in 1823. I was so happy I could have shouted aloud or done a happy Irish jig, but that was not quite possible in this particular setting and with the little angel dozing on my lap. I had to settle for beaming widely and sharing my excitement with my family later.

I'm sure that my children have sometimes wondered why I enjoy the genealogical pursuit so much.

Did they understand the tears in my eyes when I read the story of my great-great-grandfather's demise on the railroad in a train explosion and realized how his wife and children must have suffered?

Do they fully understand my stories of the struggles that our ancestors endured, such as their great-great-grandmothers' trans-Atlantic crossings: one with several children and a baby and one with an ill child who was detained at the Ellis Island hospital on arrival?

Did my children wonder why I left them all at the dinner table suddenly one evening after the delivery truck had left a thick package from the National Archives that I had eagerly been waiting for?

Photograph privately held by Lisa, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,]. 2009.

Even if they haven't completely understood, they have certainly seemed to enjoy our genealogy work together, and at the very least they will have some unique stories to share about their mother when inevitably the next generation will ask them about the family tree.

Postscript: After reading this article, one of my children was concerned that what I wrote here might be misconstrued. She wanted me to assure readers that she and her siblings very much enjoy learning about their family history. She, in fact, has contributed much to our family history blogs, including sharing pictures she has taken and assisting me with writing quite a few articles. You can be assured that our family’s history will be in very good hands for coming generations!


Amy Coffin said...

Wonderful post! I can completely relate to the constant juggling of the parenting you have to do and the genealogy you want to do. My son sometimes complains and claims genealogy is boring, but with the questions he asks I know he's paying attention. Thanks for sharing the part of your life with us.

Cindy said...

Lisa - I too can relate to this post. I had a few years there when my older "group" of kids were a bit older and I could do a bit more but it seems that I've started over and now have two more below the age of 4. It's very difficult to juggle it all and when I know I should be sleeping, I'm sitting at the PC, searching for one more gleaming bit of info I just know is out there!

Thanks for all you do in sharing the Irish info with us and your very informative posts. I've got an award for you at my other blog "Cindy's Place" please stop by and grab the badge for the "This Blog has Heart" award. Thanks for everything!

Kathryn said...

My Mom did lots of genealogy as I was growing up. I even went to the local National Archives building with her once when I was younger. I never really understood the whole family history thing until I was much older. Now I'm really into it! When my 3 yr old was a baby, I would go to the LDS Family History Center and he would sleep on the floor while I did research. I think it's really cool that you involve your kids! From my own experience, I think it will pay off, even if it does take a few years!

Becky Jamison said...

I really enjoyed reading your story. Thanks so much for posting it!!! My son was raised when I started researching my family, but I'm working at getting my grandchildren interested!

Lisa said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Amy, Cindy, Kathryn and Becky. It is good to hear that there are so many other young genealogists-in-training out there!


Dorene from Ohio said...

What a lovely posting! I am
a "genie grandma" and my two little
grandsons love helping me find names in cemeteries!

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

This is the way that the "family history bug" - by being submerged in the joy of it!
Evelyn in Montreal


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