I learned that my great-grandma Butch, an appellation that always raised eyebrows (now I know she was married to a butcher), was really named Pauline. At Ellis Island, my father's family traded its hard-to-pronounce surname (Gjoastein) for something friendlier to English-speaking tongues. My mother's father was born on Indian territory (could the Choctaw myth be true?). Branch after branch sprouted, each reaching back to an earlier generation. A surprise party of deceased relatives popped up from their hiding places, shouting their names: Shadrack, Minerva, Jehoida, Synneve. I eagerly typed them into the software's placeholders, cameo-like silhouettes—blue for boys and pink for girls. I skipped lunch and postponed my trip to the grocery store.
The most bewitching of all the ancestry.com apparatus is the small green leaf that appears next to a name to signal that you have a "hint"—say, a link to the family tree of a distant relative, or documents like an obituary, a military registration card, or a ship's passenger list. Ignore the leaves and they begin to undulate: a coy, beguiling wave—part Marilyn Monroe, part queen of England. Once in a while for unknown reasons, they momentarily freeze, then jitter in a collective orgasmic shiver. Night fell; I didn't close the blinds. When the dogs started to whine for their dinner, I sent them to their beds.
Yes, I took my laptop to bed. And I didn't close the lid until I could no longer stay awake. I saw the leaves in my sleep, curling and waving, beckoning coquettishly on the periphery of my dreams, my ancestors calling, Come find me, across the generations. In the morning I woke with a sense of shame, then opened the laptop before brushing my teeth.
Next: Going farther into the past