Every piece of information I fed into the machine paid back threefold. Entering my grandfather's name yielded not only his birth, marriage, and death certificates, but the names and dates of his siblings—all 12 of them. Documents floated up from the ether: census forms, wills, and immigration papers alongside visual gewgaws—coats of arms, tombstones, historical portraits, and photos of ancestral castles. My response was primal. I threw myself into an orgy of clicking and typing, snatching the low-hanging fruit as my family tree grew exponentially.

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 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


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