I am not a genealogist. I am a storyteller.
The difference? Well, Ill tell you a story.
In the spring of 2006, I was racing against a loudly-ticking generational clock, trying to find as many living relatives as I possibly could before their advancing age caught up with them. I was hoping that they could shed light on a long-ago family secret, one that my mother had created in the early 1940s and kept throughout her life. She had hidden the existence of a disabled sister who had been institutionalized for 30 years. Mom had died in 1999, her secret more or less intact. I was researching a book on her motivations for keeping the secret, and the consequences to her and those around her.
My working hypothesis: I had relatives I had never met, and I wondered whether their descendants might have some knowledge of my unknown secret aunt. Perhaps a bit of family folklore had traveled down their branch that had never made it down mine.
I had the beginnings of a family tree on my dad’s side, courtesy of a cousin who had emailed me a version, but none on my mom’s side. So I started to construct one, but got no farther than I had in junior high school, when an enterprising teacher had assigned us to create family trees for a class project. When I had asked Mom back then for the names of my grandmother’s parents and siblings, she had just shrugged. That was the old country, she told me, as if that explained everything instead of nothing. Mom, born in the United States, professed no knowledge of my grandparents’ early life in Russia or Ukraine or Poland (it was a mystery to me then), or whatever part of Eastern Europe we once called home.
According to a medical record that I had obtained, my grandmother was one of 10 children. I knew none of them. I knew none of their descendants. I just needed one name, and then I could pursue the genealogical trail, perhaps to someone alive, but if not, perhaps to a document, or a photo or some other clue that might lead me deeper into the story of Mom’s secret.
Through painstaking work with passenger manifests, I had managed to learn the likely spellings of my grandparents’ last names when they left Russia before the first world war. They were born in a small town near the old Austro-Hungarian border, a town that had changed hands several times in the course of the 20th century. Did the town’s birth and marriage records still exist? If they did, would they yield the information I needed to trace the living descendants of my grandmother’s nine brothers and sisters?
I consulted a genealogist with experience in obtaining records from the archives of Eastern European countries. He gave me a crash course in what I needed to do. The more he explained, the more daunting it sounded — and the more expensive. He suggested that I purchase every record with any connection to the family names I already knew.
Worried that I would be overwhelmed with information, I asked whether it would be better to start with the smattering of the records that seemed most relevant. “I’m not a genealogist,” I told him. “I’m not trying to build a family tree. I’m writing a book, and I’m trying to find out the things that will help me tell the story.”
His genealogical ears couldn’t believe what I had just said. “How could you not want to know it all?” he said, his voice reflecting his amazement. “How could you pass up the opportunity?”
I felt sheepish. “I’m interested, of course,” I finally said. “But right now, the story is what I’m after.”
Genealogists and writers are like distant cousins: They resemble each other, but it’s easy to tell them apart. I’m in awe of the discipline that genealogists bring to their craft. I admire their dedication to a well-understood (if unwritten) set of rules for pursuing, finding, sifting, confirming and verifying information, before they connect the dotted lines between a ggf (great-grandfather, in genealogist parlance) and a second cousin once removed. As a writer, however, I’m wary of becoming a member of their club.
No need to be daunted, however. Genealogists are a welcoming bunch. They not only love company, they invite anyone to join their growing numbers, and millions have taken trips down the genealogical trail. The sudden accessibility of information online, such as census and immigration records, has made it possible for anyone to make a stab at researching their family origins, often without leaving the comfort of their living room. Amateurs like me vastly outnumber the professionals. Ancestry.com, which calls itself “the No. 1 source for online family history information,” claims nearly 1 million paying subscribers and says that online visitors have created more than six million family trees since that feature was introduced three years ago.
You won’t find mine there. My tree, with more broken branches than sturdy ones, exists only on paper, two pages taped together to accommodate the bits and pieces I had collected. I constructed it as an aid for interviewing a long-lost cousin, and then kept it on my desk as I wrote my book.
It was a huge help, a reference that I used so often that it became a bit tattered. Some day, I’ll go back to it. I’ll try to flesh out a few of the bare branches. I might even take a risk, and order some of those records from Eastern Europe. I’m curious, after all.
But not just yet. I have to finish this new story I’m working on.
©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.