I have been working on our family tree lately through ancestry.com. On one side of the family, we cannot make the leap from the U.S. to Ireland. So we have no idea where in Ireland to look for our ancestors. Occasionally, you find another ancestry.com member who seems to have the information you are seeking. But then you find out that they don’t have any documents to prove their assumptions, and they actually borrowed from your tree to make the links they were missing. Turns out not to be the right fit. For example, my Great-Aunt Frances, who I knew well, never married and lived her entire life with her two unmarried sisters a few blocks from her brother (my grandfather). She used to play “Old Maid” with us when we were little, and when one of us lost, she would make us feel better by saying, “But I’m the real old maid!” But several other ancestry.com members have taken that branch of the family and linked my Great Aunt Frances in marriage to a guy named Frank Strom. That means that they have inadvertently meshed two totally distinct families, who may one day come together thinking they share the same blood. Not that that is a bad thing necessarily. Maybe further back in Ireland, we were linked anyway. Who knows? Anyway, this great search for family history may be in vain, as amateurs like me, use ancestry.com to make leaps that our own oral histories did not save for us.
Still, it is easy to become obsessed with trying to find that link, especially if you are someone who likes research and enjoys getting absorbed in little details. You can forget your to-do list or your worries when you are looking for the birth certificate or immigration papers for someone who arrived here from Europe in 1880.
But in this process, and looking at other people’s family trees that merely record names and dates and places, I realized that that information is not what any of us are really seeking. The thing to be spending time on is writing down any of the stories we know about family members living and deceased, so that the unique tale of our family gets saved somehow. It is the stories, with photos when we have them, that bring us to life. Not the data, or even the names.
My 9-year-old son said it correctly the other day. He had asked why so many people research their family trees, but answered it a few minutes later for himself…and for me. The wise soul said, “It’s because they have their family tree in their hearts and they want to write it down. It’s a way to remember their grandparents and great-grandparents when they are gone.”
So I have changed how I use ancestry.com to record my family history. I only save information if I can find supporting documentation that proves the link. And I am using the Comment section to record memories and stories passed along to me by my parents, aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins. If I don’t ever make that leap to some small town in whatever county in Ireland, it won’t matter. That was the point when I started. But I’v learned from my son what the point will be when I’m done.