Up a (Family) Tree: The Exhilarating Search for My Ancestors
But I was onto something. My grandmother, the supposed Norwegian, hailed from a line of New Englanders on one side and Danes on the other. Her husband, my grandfather, was indeed a second-generation Norwegian, descended from fishermen and farmers on a southern fjord. More surprising was my mother's family. With growing amazement I traced her ancestors through the Civil War, the Indian Removal Act, and the Louisiana Purchase. My anxiety about what I might find was somewhat assuaged by their apparent poverty. From all appearances, they were subsistence farmers who raised an average of ten children each generation—too poor to hold slaves or to do much of anything but survive. Viewing the census records, with the names and ages of the people in each household, made it real for me. For one thing, imagine the sheer number of all those children, who came regularly every year or two. Naming them alone would be a chore, not to mention bathing, feeding, and housing them without conveniences like electricity and running water.
I fell into a rhythm. I abandoned my research and cribbed from the family trees of members who had clearly spent thousands of hours combing through documents and chasing down details. The software makes it easy to leech off the labor of distant relatives. About that time I realized that you could spend the rest of your life tricking out your tree—adding anecdotes, pieces of history, visuals. You could visit cemeteries, courthouses, countries, and towns of origin. You could network with other members. Spend all your time among the dead. My tree began to sprawl as I copied entire branches from fourth and fifth cousins many times removed. I ate dry cereal out of the box, stopped answering the phone, and left my desk only when I absolutely had to. The hours flew by. I promised myself that, once the free membership expired, this relationship would end.
Toward evening I crossed into pre–American Revolution times. Yes, my ancestors were in this country before it was the United States of America, and here were the documents to prove it. One more leaf, one more generation, and I would stop, I swore, but two hours later there I was at the computer, glassy-eyed and stiff, still clicking away.
Odd names began to appear. Mercy. Charity. Honor. I checked the dates: 1620s. The place: Plymouth, Massachusetts. Pilgrims! My sense of identity went into a tailspin. I had never envisioned myself as one of those people. No, I was, uh...Norwegian, uh...working-class, hmm...Californian, let's see...Choctaw. But there wasn't time to ponder these implications because a new leaf beckoned and I wanted to cross the ocean, get back to the old country pronto, and find out exactly where those pilgrims had come from.
I slept with the laptop again that night. We were at it until the wee hours. I woke with a ragged hangover and saw myself in the mirror as my partner would when she returned home in a few hours—disheveled, haggard, obsessed. But I couldn't stop. I was inhabiting a different world, the Middle Ages, to be precise, because that's where my search had taken me the night before. In solidarity with my medieval ancestors who had lived in the wilds of Scotland and Ireland without benefit of electricity or polar fleece, I lit some candles and shivered in the morning cold as I thought of how they looked, what they ate, and how they smelled. I pictured the runny noses of all those unwashed children and the winter darkness that must have been deeper than any I'd ever known. Animal skins, bows and arrows, beer for breakfast. That's how my mind was running as the morning progressed, and I knew in just a few hours there would be a witness to my condition.
Next:: Heading for the deep end, making it back alive