Thursday, June 15, 2006

Family, Lies and Damn Lies (Statistics)

I’ve spent much of this weekend inputting old genealogy info into my new computer software. I had mostly dropped genealogy in 1992, after a decade of intense work that was primarily done by hand; looking at microfilms and hand-writing any info that seemed to be about family. Copies were 50 cents each and the films about $3, so I had limited myself to handwriting, which I’d then typed into the old Apple IIe (maybe I’d moved up to IBM by then…) Anyway, my hard drive got corrupted (hardware; this was before internet) and I lost years of painstaking documentation (I had backed up not knowing the files had already gotten corrupted, so the copies were also bad)… and I gave up in frustration. Then just this year, my mother finally sent me two shoe boxes of old negatives, and I figured out how to scan them into the computer using my scanner and a flashlight (okay, not perfect copies, but enough to print and ask Mom to ID -- no one knows where the photos went). Then I discovered an inexpensive family history software that allowed me to incorporate photos and all kinds of tidbits, and which kept track of my to-do list and also made family trees instantly and a document to upload onto the web to share with others (that software had been in the experimental phase, very clunky, when I left off genealogy). I was just gonna input the facts that I knew… and before I knew it, I was hooked again.

Genealogy, if it grabs you, becomes a real compulsion. Everyone I know who does it says the same thing. I have two cousins who work on my father’s side (no one on Mom’s side has shown an inclination), and we have individually at some time: sat in the National Archives for 8 hours straight looking at census records; gone through microfilms of NYC directories from 1865 to 1910 looking for family names and businesses; written to every known family member asking for stories, photos and info; spent 12 hours driving to Salt Lake City and then another 12 hours pouring through genealogy records before closing tired eyes for six hours and starting again (that last was me)… it’s kind of nuts (some of you are thinking, ”kind of??”)… but when I look out our cabin window, I see fisherman drifting in rowboats, a fine cold rain pouring down on them and I think my hobby is no crazier… maybe no saner, but no crazier… (esp. if they have to throw them back). And there is something so satisfying about finding your great grandfather’s signature on some document, of finding out that you still have cousins in some small town in Ireland. It’s like a treasure hunt or archeology without all the mucky digging. Or like fishing, without the worms

Anyway, back to the title -- it’s a tricky thing to get information out of relatives… one reason is that anyone who was motivated to remember the stories correctly is already a family historian, so the other relatives only remember fragments and their stories keep changing; another reason is that they are suspicious of why the stories are needed, or they don’t want anyone to “dig up dirt”… somehow it never occurs to them that two generations down, the readers will see the stories as charming and quaint, not “dirt”, will be desperate for any story about a great-grandmother, however trivial… and by then it’s too late… So stories get “watered down” or deliberately forgotten, the extra research it takes to find the facts feels like “busy work”, when all the aunt or uncle would have had to do was to admit to some fact or another… and the public documents themselves are so full of inaccuracies that occasionally I want to throw up my hands and find a simpler hobby, like particle physics! Birth and death certificates don’t match up; census records make it even a worse muddle… I spent much of yesterday just trying to mediate between piles of old lists of facts that didn’t jive… Since my husband and most of my friends aren’t interested, I do sometimes ask myself why I do this… my tongue-in-cheek answer is that if any of my sibs or my nieces or nephew gets famous (or infamous), I’m ready for the reporters’ questions… my real reason has more to do with the feeling of solidity in picturing a whole family tree, extending back into the history books that I studied in high school, back to the events on PBS shows that I enjoy watching… “we were there,” I tell myself, “we lived through that”. In a world where everyone has his 15 nanoseconds of fame, the list of ancestors and relatives, spreading out behind me like a fan, or like a web, seems to give my own life more weight, more meaning… or so it seems.

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