After I started staying home with my first baby I found myself bored. Used to juggling a baby and legal books and living in a haze of continual exhaustion I suddenly had the rare luxury of an abundance of free time. And so I stumbled across an unlikely hobby to fill my leisure hours – family history. I got a big notebook and some sheet protectors – about as much creativity as my logical brain could muster – and began putting in some stories and pictures. It snowballed from there (my husband would say this puts it mildly).
Today I have an entire room dedicated to family history and spend some of my most enjoyable spare moments immersed in pedigree charts, digital archives and connecting online with relatives half a world away. Sounds strange? It is! But this odd hobby has probably done more to shape my life and my family than any other leisure pursuit.
I have learned a lot from my family history:
I learned that I wanted children. I didn’t want to miss out on the experience of having kids. After all, pedigree charts and family group sheets teach us that when all is said and done, our children are all that’s left. And maybe that’s not so far from the truth. In addition, I learned to like the idea of big families. They offer an extraordinary network of support, protection and legacy. But big or small, it doesn’t take too long traveling down a pedigree chart to watch the benefits of having children grow and grow and grow.
I learned that a happy marriage is worth just about any price. I saw the solidarity in my grandmother’s family whose parents had a diamond wedding anniversary. I saw this trend continue in the lives of their married children. I also saw happiness in families with more difficult marriages who stuck it out. I learned of the unintended consequences of divorce seeping down through the generations and of the shame that comes with abandoning family responsibilities. I came to admire relatives who worked hard to build strong marriages and families with no one to show them how. Strong marriages are the bedrock foundation for generations of success. And I learned from meeting different relatives that it’s not very fun to be in the same room with two people who just cannot seem to get along.
I learned the power of womanhood and motherhood. Women, often quiet on the historical stage, play a central role in family history. My heroes became women. My great-great grandmother who died after giving birth to her sixteenth child (my great-grandmother). The woman who chose to raise the little motherless girl who became my great-grandmother. Two great aunts – single sisters who opened a clothing store, cared for their aging parents, and one of whom wrote an amazing history of her family. A mother without a high school education, abandoned by her husband, who worked long hours in bakeries to finally see all three of her children graduate from college. These were women who braved it all and sacrificed for the sake of family. Their quiet lives of love, dignity and service became my examples. They did it all for family – why couldn’t I?
Family is really just about everything. One of my favorite projects lately has been indexing obituaries. And after indexing close to one thousand records I can truly say that when your life boils down to one short paragraph at dollars per word – family is what counts. People don’t generally recount raises and professional successes in an obituary. They talk about what kind of a father you were, what kind of a mother, and a great deal of space is devoted to cataloging the family relationships you left behind. That’s it. At least from a family history perspective.
So this is what I have learned after fifteen years of family history. Oh, and I have also learned that maybe, just maybe, trading dusty old law books for time with my baby was not a sacrifice, but a blessing that could pay dividends for generations to come.