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The other night, my fourth grader got out his homework, and handed me a worksheet. “Can you help me with this?”
I looked. “Discover Your Roots” was printed above a family tree chart. He had already filled in his immediate family, but the upper branches were still blank. This was it, my moment. I was being called up from the bench.
Could I help with this? Oh, I DON’T KNOW, how much extra paper do we have?
Except I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to scare him with my enthusiasm. His older brothers had already sensed the intensity, and were keeping their heads down.
I opened up the computer and went to our Ancestry.com family tree, so he could copy the names of his grandparents and great-grandparents onto his worksheet. As we looked, he was able to see the photographs I’ve saved to their profiles. Like these ones of my grandmothers:
As he copied their names, I told him how much his great-grandmother Mary loved fly fishing, how good she was at it, and how delicious those trout were. I told him about his great-grandmother Ferne’s gift with animals—what a great horsewoman she was, and how I saw her coax a trapped bee out of our car one time, cupping it in her hand without it stinging her.
After he had all the grands and the first set of greats copied over to his sheet, I zoomed out on the tree, with his name and birth date at the base. We counted exponents. Two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and all sixteen of his great-great grandparents had names and dates. Then some branches stopped, while others scrolled on and on.
I was able to show him things like an obituary for his 5th X great-grandmother, who was born in Germany, and died in South Carolina, “a friend to all mankind.” A few months ago, we didn’t know her name, much less her reputation. But Patrick’s Ancestry DNA matches turned up a distant cousin who was able to extend his branch back many more generations. She, and several other Ancestry members with whom my boys share roots, have been so generous and helpful. Community is one of the greatest resources in online genealogy. Nobody walks the ancestral trail alone for very long.
One of the homework questions was to find out if anyone in the family tree fought in the Civil War, and on which side. I told my son what I learned from a telephone interview with Ancestry.com family historian Lisa Elzey: if your tree has an American male born in the 1830s, chances are good that he fought in the Civil War (and that one great place to look is the National Park Service database of soldiers). We went across the American side of his tree laterally, looking at candidates. I had already located records for three soldiers – two for the Confederacy, and one for the Union.
“What about him?” my son asked, pointing to a 3rd X great-grandfather who was born in 1845.
I clicked “search records,” and found a pension application by his widow, which told us he enlisted from Missouri, but not which side. We had the name of his regiment, though, so we started googling. By this time, my older boys were fully engaged, looking over my shoulder and scanning through wikipedia entries to see if we could find a mention. I confess I was hoping we would turn up another Union man to even things out, but it turned out that great-great-great grandpappy PJ wore gray.
Photo taken and kindly shared by another of PJ’s great-great-great grandsons, Guy Choate, who I met on Ancestry.com, and who, like his fourth cousins, is a pretty cool fellow.*
“But look,” I pointed out on the next row. “His daughter married a man whose dad fought on the other side.” In just one generation, enemies had become a family.
I printed out the longest branches of his tree to bring to class –one of Patrick’s that goes back to 1666, and one of mine that goes back to 1614. “I know one fourth grade teacher who is going to deeply regret sending home a family tree worksheet,” I quipped to my Facebook friends, who are probably so tired of my genealogy updates, they’ve all got me on mute.
He brought the appended branches home in his backpack the next day. “She only wanted the first sheet,” he reported.
Considering all the history we covered in one night, I think I should have at least gotten a happy face stamp.
“That’s alright,” I told him. “it’s for you to have, anyway.” Which sums up one of the most satisfying things about researching our family tree – the sense of assembling something for the ages, a record that our kids and future generations can look back to, and build on. So that when my 5th X great grandchild comes to his mother with the same damn worksheet that teachers have been xeroxing for 500 years, they can have as much fun climbing the family tree as we did.
*And a writer, whose lovely memoir of his grandparents is published here.
Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win a free 1-year World Explorer membership, valued at $299 (international entries welcome). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, March 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Brad, who won the DNA test from Ancestry.com in January’s giveaway)!