family history, Musings

The Family Tree

A thought occurred to me as I was researching my family tree. It’s easy to think that family research is simply researching pedigree. That is, the tracing of direct lineage. You < Parents < Grandparents < Great-Grandparents < Great-Great-Grandparents and so one, going up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up until you’ve reached the very tippy-toppy part of your family tree, balancing precariously upon the stump and you can go no more.

But a tree doesn’t grow that way in real life does it?

Roots can run deep in one location or they can span wide distances. Trunks may grow in leaps and bounds, adding feet each year. Or, they may take their time, slowly stretching a few inches. But no trunk grows in solidarity. Even the mighty redwood will eventually branch out and away from its trunk. The branches growing, balancing, steadying the tree as it develops.

Some branches may be spindly and thin, their growth stunted, while others may be thick with several shoots sprouting, reaching for the sun. Reaching to be noticed. The leaves multiply, creating a canopy above.

A strong storm may damage and destroy the branches. Lightning may strike, dividing the tree in two. Knots may form, infections and blight may injure the tree. But still the tree bears the scars of what once was visible. The tree refuses to give up its weakest link. Even within the many rings that write its history, the tree retains the knowledge of all that has past. It stands tall and proud, bearing all its branches, the strong and the weak, for the world to see.

And so too, our research must branch out and away from our trunk. Because there are so many wonderful, fantastical stories hidden among the many branches, the many leaves.

The disappearing great-great grandfather who was last spotted in the 1870 census may appear living a few doors away from his brother in the 1880 census. Only the enumerator couldn’t understand his heavy accent and spelled his last name with a “v” instead of a “w” and an “a” rather than with the “e” as  you know it to be.

Or you may learn that the person closest to your great-grandmother was her brother, who listed her as his “Person who will always know your address” upon his WWII draft card.

You may discover your great-great-great grandfather’s second wife had had a child prior to their marriage who was raised by her sister.

Some stories may lay in wait for years. The great-great-great grandfather who never uses a full name, only initials, and as such, could be any one of five possibilities listed within the family surname book. But suddenly, you find a newspaper article bearing the name of his brother and all the pieces come together.

Shake the extended branches of your tree.

You never know what might fall out.

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