Thursday, February 18, 2016

Putting Our Genealogical Skills
to Other Uses

Every once in a while, I do break away from my computer and venture out into the real world. Yesterday, the occasion was a lunch meeting with a friend who had recently recuperated from surgery.

Since we both are genealogy fanatics, it was no surprise that the conversation eventually drifted toward our Topic of Prime Interest. Now that she was past the pain-medicated, bed-ridden stage, my friend wanted to pick up on some projects she had set aside—as would be expected—but she also had a new one in mind.

This new project was unlike any genealogical research you'd expect to do in the usual pursuit of family history secrets. My friend wants to put her search skills to use to find a former neighbor she fondly remembers from her childhood.

She had already made some headway in this fresh pursuit, mainly thanks to our local library's extensive collection of city directories. It certainly helps to know both the name and the address of the person whom you're seeking, and even though this was a memory dredged up from the blur of childhood, there are just some things we don't forget.

As sometimes happens when we run into these special people who are so kind to children, this woman my friend was seeking apparently ended up having no children of her own. She likely displaced this disappointment with ideas on how she could be a blessing to other people's children. That is exactly what made this woman stand out in my friend's life, so many decades later.

Now, knowledgeable about how to put these genealogical research skills to work, my friend is applying what she knows about how to search to this very different type of family history project. Maybe, just maybe, she can find a living relative and send her thanks by proxy.

My friend's idea got me to thinking about my own collection of people from my childhood about whom I've always wondered. Whatever became of them? I can find out, you know. We all can. If we've learned how to ferret out the details on our missing great-great-grandparents, we can apply those same skills to find almost anyone.

I think about the German immigrant widow who lived down the block from our family in my youngest years. I never saw her, other than when she was walking home from the grocery store, wheeled basket towed behind her. I still can clearly see her faded dress, her black old-lady shoes and the dark seam of her stockings—still carefully straightened—at the back of her swollen legs.

I always wondered who she was—especially since neither of my parents ever engaged her in conversation, nor did I see anyone else in the neighborhood interact with her. Hers was the oldest house on the block—an old style building, dark in the recesses of overgrown trees and bushes—while everyone else's house was of the cookie-cutter vintage so prevalent in early post-war suburbia. It was as if the world decided to go on without her, but she just held her turf despite such notions of "progress."

It occurred to me, in yesterday's conversation, that though I've "always wondered" about her, now—if I want to—I can find out who she was. I have the skills and the resources, and I know how to use them. I have no idea what good it might be to find out, but it will somehow speak to that insatiable childhood curiosity that has apparently never left me.

I don't doubt that others may share that call of the "always wondered" but as-yet-unsolved tiny mysteries of our childhood. There are many such quests: wishes to reconnect with elementary school teachers to tell them a long-overdue thank you for their patience with our impossible childish selves. Regrets that we never went back home to tell someone the rest of the story—the story they hoped they would hear—of how our lives turned out. Those missed chances to find out whatever happened when we went one way and our childhood friends went the other way.

Though we may share such calls from a melancholy past, what's different now is that we have the tools and the skills to find out the answers for ourselves—and then, just maybe, to do something about what we discover.

Above: "Moonrise," 1884 oil on canvas by Polish artist, Stanisław Masłowski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I'm a member of several GROUPS on Facebook dedicated to the city where I grew up and to the various towns and counties where my ancestors lived. Mostly it's a place for people to post old photos and reminisce. If such a group exists for you and for your friend, you could post your question, sit back, and watch all the answers flood in.

    1. Now, that's an interesting avenue to explore, Wendy. Thanks for mentioning that. I've been a member of some Facebook groups for counties in Ireland, and one for Chicago--now, there's a great, instant-answer resource!--but they have all been groups focused on genealogy. But yes, there are some groups focused generally on a locale, or the history of one place. Great idea!

  2. I am fortunate to have been raised very close to where we live now. I know when my teachers died...saw one as we left the clinic today he is 90 plus. Sometimes I do wonder what happened to some of the people we were in the Air Force with...we were all in the same boat or plane so to speak:)

    1. Oh, those Air Force friends could be all over the world, now. That would be a challenge to find out...or maybe not, given how close knit some of those groups were. But you are fortunate, for sure, in being in such a close-knit community in your hometown. That is special.

  3. Ah, the search for the "missing" person aspect of genealogy tools! Been there - done that and have had a lot of very mixed success. It isn't as easy as it ... might be.


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