A Son Asks, Why Do Genealogy?

Going down into my parents’ basement, the stairs go down, then a brief landing, then they go down the other way. Along the walls are displayed a series of maps, photographs, letters, articles, and advertisements that my father has collected over a decade of genealogical research, the images and words and posters following you down as you go. Between the shape of the stairs and the information displayed, it’s hard not to be reminded of the helix shape of a DNA strand—to feel as if some magic spell had been cast that has allowed me to move through the lives of those long dead and still living family members without whom I would not be here.

I say that dad started a decade ago—I don’t actually know if that’s true. I know that sometime between his retirement around a decade ago and now, he began looking up everything he could on family members, to trace his own and my mother’s ancestors back until the strands dissolved. This search led our family on a number of adventures, to Scotland, to Ireland, to St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands, to Toronto, where my maternal grandfather was born. It led to the discovery of a lost cousin, whose father had been separated from the family as a baby somewhere in the Caribbean and adopted by a family in Miami. It led to my father developing a set of skills which he has used to help friends trace their own roots, and that it also led to paid work as a professional genealogy gumshoe, stitching together stories that seemed unresolvable, being the man on the ground searching for primary source documents in government archives.

There’s a sense that I might be overselling all of this. That describing genealogy work as an “adventure” and a genealogist as a “gumshoe” is stretching things, insisting that something that everyone knows is boring to be exciting—or thinks that they know, anyway. But watching my dad do this research, listening to him talk about the historical moments, the dramatic and quotidian ones, that he has uncovered has connected me to these people, places, and times in ways that honestly surprise me. I find myself imagining myself in different places and times, placed in various predicaments, and I try to imagine what I had been there and that ancestor had been here. I wonder, reading about soldiers and hucksters and immigrants and entrepreneurs, where I will spot my reflection.

I knew what my dad was doing, but I didn’t really know what he was doing, if you know what I mean. I had lots of questions for him. How did you get started doing genealogy research? What is the work like, generally? What do you wish you’d known at the beginning that you know now?

So I went ahead and asked him.

(To be continued…)