Saturday, June 25, 2011

Names on a Page

Some of you will remember my teenaged preoccupation with genealogy (as teenaged preoccupations go, a pretty good one, I guess). It's never entirely faded, but only in the past couple of years have I started actively doing anything with it again.

A few months before I got married, I was surprised to discover that I was excited to learn about my husband-to-be's family history, as excited as if I were unearthing names, dates, and facts about my own ancestors. It made sense, I realized, because his family was about to become mine, in a very real way. And because whatever children we might someday have would be descended just as much from these "new" ancestors as from those whose names I'd had memorized for years.

A few days ago, I started going through the information I'd compiled in 2008 and inputting it into a family tree database at Rather than finding it tedious, I have always found something oddly soothing about entering names, birth, marriage, and death dates, and location details into genealogy software. I can't explain it. There's just something so satisfying about accounting for someone's existence with a few keystrokes and watching their little box appear on the relevant familial branch.

I've had to remind myself, though, that genealogy is more than just names on a page. Sure, it's that -- so much of the spadework involves scanning hastily-scrawled census records, dusty county history volumes, or digital listings for that one elusive name. And I suppose that entering data in FamilyTreeMaker that was once lovingly recorded in someone's family Bible is a way of honoring ancestors, too. It's vital work.

But too easily, I think, it can become a disembodied act. I can lose focus on the fact that the new leaf on my tree is not just a collection of dates, but a human being who lived, suffered, loved, prayed, and died. He or she might have borne a trace resemblance to me, but the similarity may have ended there -- were we to meet face to face, who knows how we would have gotten along? This progenitor who lived, say, 160 years ago is essentially a stranger to me -- and yet, without her, I would not now exist, at least not in exactly the same way. It's humbling to think about.

Of course, quite often, it isn't possible to recover more about a long-dead ancestor than a handful of data. In those cases, I can do no more than imagine. But I think that's better than forgetting that my ancestors were people, not facts...and that I am a small twig on a much bigger tree that long preceded me and that will grow, God willing, long after.

I'm hopeful that Kevin and I may be able to visit some of his ancestors' old stomping grounds in northern Missouri later this summer. Stay tuned!


  1. Have you seen the big blue book on the Bickett family history that Kevin's great-aunt Verna helped compile? It's fascinating. I think my parents have a copy somewhere.


  2. No, but I'm really excited to see it! I've heard about it, but somehow or other it didn't get pulled out last time we were there.