I have found my new “thing”. Ancestry.com.
As a child I was fascinated by my older relatives’ stories. At the two family reunions I remember, I’d prefer to laze about under the tables in the old people’s room and listen to them tell the escapades of long-dead aunts, uncles and cousins than go swimming with my own first and second cousins. I’d take it all in as long as I could until I was eventually kicked out–despite protest—to go find something more “fun” for a girl of 8 or 10. I think this is where I learned how to interview someone. Ask one question about the other person and sit back and wait for the story to come. It always does. People love to talk about themselves when they know someone is really listening. That’s when you get the juicy bits.
Last night Mom was checking her email (which she does maybe once a month!) and says, “Oh, I got an email from one your cousins in Sweden. She’s your age.”
If there was a movie soundtrack playing, you would have heard the record zzzsscreeechhh!!
“Huh? I have a cousin, who is alive in Sweden?”
This blew me away. I didn’t realize I had any relatives out there. I am only acquainted with my first cousins and very few second cousins and I can count them all, including their children, on my fingers and toes.
Apparently this cousin is related to my mother’s father’s brother’s son – that son is her father. So… what does that make her to me? Third cousins? Fourth? I haven’t figured this out yet, but I did email a response to her and secure a credit card to sign my family up for Ancestry – where she’s tracked family from the Rylander side back to the early 1700s. My great-great-grandfather Rylander immigrated to the US in 1888 from Uppsala, Sweden. We had no idea he had brothers and sisters – let alone 13 full siblings and three half siblings.
I worked on Ancestry last night until 1:15 a.m., adding names and lineage back as far as I could. I discovered family stories about relatives added by other relatives. And as the tree adds up, my place on it got farther and farther away, higher and higher to the point that I’m dizzy with height sitting out there way up on top of this massive tree with super strong, deep roots. I at once feel incredibly significant realizing all of those people from the last 300 years “created” me, while at the same time, I shrink in fear with the sobering thought that just as I have no idea who my third great-grandmother was, I’ll one day be someone’s third-great aunt – and just a name on a tree branch.
What kind of life do I want to lead now? What kind of legacy could I leave? I’m going to die one day like the rest of those people. That’s a given. The thin air way up at the top starts getting to me, and I calm myself before I panic. (Anyone else get a nosebleed when they’re working on their family tree?)
In reflection and after a good night’s sleep, I think this need to survive my mortality is why I write. My journals, news stories, maybe even this article if there’s archival records of it, will at least be tangible proof of something I created that can be passed down through the generations so I can be remembered. My life, my profession, my passions may be important to my great-grand niece. I remember discovering that one of my great-grandparents was the editor of a hometown newspaper a few months after I, a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate, took on a local weekly newspaper in south Georgia. I figured that some where I had it in me to tackle that challenge. It was in my blood – and I do think it is a quarter-part ink mixed in with all that viscous and salt.
Anne Frank and her diary impressed upon me the importance of leaving a legacy. I started signing my name to my journals as an 8 year old. I collect the written letters and thank you notes of my family and friends. I document my family in photos. I scrapbook with acid-free materials. Prideful, yes. Useful, I pray so.
Here’s some interesting stories/facts I’ve discovered so far (some from Ancestry, some from my own research):
- One of my sets of great-grandparents on the Arnold side was apparently abolitionists, reporting to their grandchildren in stories that they hid runaway slaves on their property in Pennsylvania.
- My third-great grandfather Zeller was a painter when he moved from Alsace, France. There’s paperwork showing where he declared himself a French citizen to the government after Alsace was taken (given?) to the Germans before the Franco-Prussian war. It was around this time that he moved to Ohio. His son became a miller with…
- My great-great-great-grandfather Chryst who own the water rights in Girard, Ohio, for his mill. He owned and operated a grain/feed store.
- My great-great-great-grandfather George Washington Arnold lived in Clarion, Pa. He was a banker. The president of the bank in fact. I know this from copies of a newspaper given to me by my father from his father. The newspaper has a large picture of him with his obituary – on the front page. His daughter’s father, I believe, was the newspaper owner and editor I referred to earlier.
What will be your legacy? What will be mine?