Up a (Family) Tree: The Exhilarating Search for My Ancestors
Finally, at dinner, I let fall that I'd fooled around a little on ancestry.com while she was gone. "Turns out I'm related to Irish royalty," I added nonchalantly.
"No wonder you're so bossy."
"No, really. It's all documented. Ever heard of Strongbow?"
Actually, I had never heard of Strongbow, either, but now that I was related to him I was insulted that she hadn't. Certainly she'd heard of Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, who also happened to be in the family. I cut the conversation short because I was dying to get back to my computer. Right before dinner I'd experienced a major frisson when the Marys, Johns, and Elizabeths petered out and names like Gormflaith, Corcc, and Lachtnae began to replace them. Was it possible that I was heading into pre-Christian times? Was I on the trail of my pagan ancestors?
In truth I was heading for the deep end. The compulsion that had prompted me, as a child, to craft 20-foot-long timelines, memorize all the flags of the world, and hoard fingernail clippings in my piggy bank was kicking in. I began to study coats of arms, visit the Web sites of portrait galleries, and look up the etymology of Gaelic names. The current world—with its deadlines, ringing phones, and traffic jams—faded, while the one in my imagination grew wings and took flight. Best of all, this richer and more compelling world was all about me. If I'd known at age 20 that I belonged to a tribe of warriors and rulers, who knows what I might have accomplished?
I had to hurry, didn't I, if I wanted to investigate every last leaf before my two-week free membership ran out. But by day 13, I was exhausted. Strung out. Behind on my work and getting flabby. As I approached the eighth century, more and more preposterously famous names began cropping up. The fact that I had the faculties to find this fishy was a sign that I was regaining my reason.
The last day of my membership was like returning from a long journey. I was happy to be back to the comfort and security of my home but sorry to leave the novelty and excitement of a foreign land. The whirligigs stopped spinning, and the ghosts slipped back into their graves. I went to bed at a reasonable hour and woke early, exercised, and observed conventional rules of hygiene and nutrition. Answered the phone and responded to e-mail. Fed the dogs.
I was afraid that ancestry.com would send my tree into the chipper if I didn't sign on for official membership, but they weren't that cruel. Until I cough up the $12.95 monthly fee, I'm locked out of the search apparatus, but I can still go online and look. I can admire the tenacity of my DNA, which has survived ice ages, plagues, battles, and migrations. I can ponder the twists and turns it took on its journey out of Africa to the edge of the San Francisco Bay. And I can still marvel at the leaf beside my name as it flutters, freezes, and then—with all the others—trembles.