I have a confession to make. I'm addicted to Who Do You Think You Are which airs on TLC Tuesday nights at 9pm. And before you ask, the answer is no. It has nothing to do with the particular "stars" the show has chosen to feature. The producers could have picked random members of my local golf course maintenance team and I’d be just as intrigued. Why? Because unless your family has that particular and oh so studious Aunt Betty who's done all the work for you, I'm willing to put a Starbucks wager on the fact there’s a lot of stuff you don't know about your family.
I've always been fascinated by family history and as a young girl, I loved to listen to my grandma tell stories about our family. Then again, I have a great Aunt Bunny and an Uncle Duck so it could've been I thought my grandma was reading me a fairy tale. And therein lies the problem many of us face when we start climbing our family tree. As dear as those memories are to me, the fact that none of the real details about Bunny and Duck ever got written down doesn't make for a very complete family tree now that I’m old enough to really care about preserving history. Not to mention my grandma’s been gone ten years.
For the past several weeks I’ve been an active occupant of my family tree, climbing up and down branches, looking for links between limbs and researching new growth. While I attempted a similar thing many years ago, this time around, I’ve been met with tremendous success and the journey’s been nothing short of amazing. For all of the unsavory avenues we can find ourselves travelling on the Internet, the lengths to which the National Archives, the Office of Military Records and many similar organizations have gone to to update and strengthen their databases is incredible. To date I’ve learned of men of tremendous character who literally set aside their livelihoods on a moment’s notice and walked arm in arm with their neighbors and brothers into battle. I’ve learned of the women that loved them. I’ve found Union and Confederate soldiers sharing a branch, kissing cousins and a great great great great someone that stated in an 1820 census he owned eleven people. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to prune that branch but nonetheless, I’ve got archived documents to line the path and verify the good and the not so pretty branches of my tree.
As you might have guessed, the Bunny and Duck from my grandma’s stories weren't actual names I was going to find on a 1930 Census form all these years later. In fact, names are a funny beast on this journey. While I remember laboring over decided what to name my own child, I never once thought about how that name might get mangled years down the road. We have a Laura turned Lula turned Lulie. A Siota turned Scota turned Siot turned Sophie and a Dilly, and Effie, a Mally and a Barbee. But wait for it. Barbee’s a guy! My Grandpa! In one census they spelled his name correctly but listed him as a girl. In another they changed his name all together. On the other side of my family, my great grandpa came through Ellis Island in 1910. My great aunt documented her father’s life story in her thesis work when she was in college and while I remember she and my grandma talking about how names often got changed, it wasn’t until I found his immigration documents and saw it with my own eyes that it made sense to me. The men and women serving as document clerks at Ellis Island often changed names based on their own levels of education and understanding. For example, my great grandpa got on a boat in Patras, Greece as sixteen-year-old Demetrious Eusthathis Kakavecos and stepped into New York as James Kallas. There’s a note on his immigration paperwork that he contested his new name and his real name is written off to the side in a different penmanship than that of the rest of the document. A U.S. census taken just ten years later lists him by his correct name, married to my great grandma, a couple of kids in tow. Hhmm.
Speaking of penmanship, when you start to research your own tree, get ready for some scrolls and cursive the likes of which deserve to be preserved by the National Archive. It’s like the smaller the lines and the ledger, the more decorative the recorder tried to write. Maybe these clerks were trying to make up for the sins of their Ellis Island document-recording kin. Who knows? In an effort to show the world their gorgeous penmanship, more a’s and e’s and o’s and i’s and c’s got flipped than pancakes at the local breakfast joint on a Sunday. I can only imagine one of my great great grandma’s telling someone standing on her front porch to kiss her grits. We’re southern. Way southern. I’m pretty sure one of the ladies in my tree would have said something like that.
So, too, will be the story of your tree. There will be branches to keep, dead limbs you want to hide and leaves that either catch the light oh so perfectly or fight to exhaust it all together. Yet through it all, if you’re willing to wade in and just start climbing, there’s a puzzle waiting to be put together that has your name written all over it.
Indeed I've become my family’s Aunt Betty and if anything, all of this research has shown me that it’s probably just as well. I’ve been called Mary Beth, Theresa Beth and Betta Ann numerous times in my forty-three years so I’m certain I’ll get listed as Betty Ann in a census one day. And while it won’t technically be correct, I have no doubt it will all work out in the end. I’m counting on the fact my great great grandchild will be a climber.