Can’t Stop Climbing Family Tree

Help. I’ve complicated my life with obsessive family tree climbing. I can’t extract myself from, and I’m pawing through stacks of yellowed letters left behind by my mom.

I blame it on two family reunions in two weeks. My mom’s side, a crowd of 70 back-slapping Southerners with New England roots, came first. They gathered with overwhelming piles of unlabeled photos, along the Homosassa River in Florida. Then came the remnants of my dad’s side – two first cousins – who drove cross-country with their spouses, to Columbus. Our grandparents came from Czechoslovakia or thereabouts, so happily (I guess), their records fit in a Ziploc bag.

Still, the universal question in both families was the same:  “Who ARE these people?” And “How are they related to ME?”

The most intrigued with these questions are us boomers whose parents have passed on.  There is something about being the next generation to go that sparks a compulsive desire to decipher the family story and pass it on. It’s as inborn as the nesting instinct. Only instead of frantically painting nursery walls and stockpiling educational toys for brainiac newborns, we are searching for assurances that they – or we – came from good stock.

“Your business savvy must have come from your Uncle Pete,” we want to say, and regale them with stories of his meteoric rise. Or “Your great aunt was a wonderful artist. Must be in your genes!”

There is nothing like a famous surname to crank up the search. My mom’s maternal granddad was an Emerson from New England.

“Ralph Waldo?” I hoped.

“Better,” replied one of my cousins. “Hannah Emerson Duston.” Turns out she led a massacre after an Indian smashed her infant daughter against a tree.

As my cousin put it, “You don’t mess around with Emerson women.” I felt strangely stronger.

With Hannah under my belt, I couldn’t stop looking. I obsessively pawed through the under-bed chests my mom had left, and every find spurred me on. A handwritten journal written by a great aunt in the early 1900s reported that the Titanic had sunk and San Francisco was still burning. A tin-type album from the 1800s included a photo of my great-grandmother’s “first fiancée,” and I couldn’t stop wondering about the failed romance.  A spiral Blue Horse notebook included entries my grandmother had copied from her dad’s farm journal in the 1800s. But where was the journal now? I started contacting cousins to see if they knew.

Researching the Slovak side got even crazier. The one journal left behind – reportedly recounting my granddad’s exit from the Catholic Church – is in Slovak or maybe Hungarian. His birthplace has been reconfigured so often, we’re not sure. One faded picture of my paternal great grandfather called him Yuray. Another called him Mihael. The two looked nothing alike, and with business suits on, I couldn’t tell who looked most like the village blacksmith he was supposed to be.

“Why didn’t people pay more attention to the way they labeled things?” I asked no one in particular, then realized my own pictures of the here and now have no labels at all.  And for a very simple reason.  I know who’s in them.

Frantically, I picked up a pen and began to label my own pictures on the back – only to have my cousins tells me that some of my labels were wrong.

In hopes of finding more clues on the Slovak side, my cousins and I reached out to a local man with our dad’s same (unusual) last name to join our reunion and compare notes. He did, and though we found him so delightful we’d like to be related, haven’t found a common branch on our tree.

We did all vow to look, though.  And I suspect we will. Obsessive compulsive looking seems to run in the family. Both sides.

Copyright 2013 Pat Snyder

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2 Responses to “Can’t Stop Climbing Family Tree”

  1. Bill Says:

    Although I’ve done very little so far in my ancestry searching, family myths are an area that can also be interesting. I had always heard that my paternal grandfather had changed his name when he came to the US in 1913 from Switzerland. I was led to believe by my mother’s side of the family that it was the spelling of Voss that was altered. I assumed that maybe it had been something as simple as Foss or one of the other variations. As it turns out, he legally changed the spelling of his first name from Wilhelm to William during WW I so as not to sound too German.

  2. Pat Snyder Says:

    Interesting. I think a lot of name-changing occurred. Same apparently with Snyder. Or so the story goes.

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