Every now and then, I can't help but think of how unprecedented our times are, especially for genealogical research. This past week, as I was working on the wills of various Ijams ancestors of my mother-in-law—all, incidentally, filed in jurisdictions located at least 2,500 miles from my little pandemic bubble of isolation—it occurred to me how fast I was flying through the details, compared to how glacially slow the process would have seemed a generation ago.
In the past two weeks, I added 182 names to my mother-in-law's family tree, which now boasts a total of 20,912 individuals. And that wasn't all. I also put in the work to gain 137 names for my own family tree, making the total there 25,782.
That, however, wasn't the amazing part. It was when I jumped from website to website as needed, picking up a census record here, an obituary there, a will, a city directory to find the way home. All nearly jumped to my fingertips instantaneously, and were secured in their proper place in an organized virtual system.
I marvel to think how much time it would have taken, prior to the Internet, to accomplish the research sequence that took, for me this past week, maybe a couple hours of online digging. We don't have to crank through microfilm reels, fighting off the nausea that comes from trying to speed-read film while it is still moving past our eyes. (Hurry! The library is closing in fifteen minutes!)
Furthermore, we don't have to spend a day searching through one record set, only to find that we have nothing to show for eight hours' labor other than the answer to the question, "Was it here?" (No.)
Now, we can construct huge swaths of lineage in a matter of moments rather than months. That gives us the luxury of delving deeper into the stories behind those dates, places, and names. And with tools unforeseen in past generations, such as DNA testing, we can peer into the dark recesses of family secrets—if we have the fortitude to face the truth.
The truth of the matter—at least, for me—is that the farther I follow those details, and the more I work to assemble what seem to be random data points into a coherent story, the more I realize how frail and feeble the human condition can be. We—all of us—are so prone to mistakes, bad choices, dashed hopes, ill-advised schemes, that we can hardly hold our ancestors to task over their own foibles.
After all, with a little digging through the paper trail, we are able to lay bare such raw elements in past generations of our family. They certainly are there for us to stumble upon, and we know just how to do that.
Maybe remembering that, generations from now, our descendants will be able to sift through the data strewn behind our own lives' trajectory, will help us add kindness and empathy to the unfolding of our ancestors' stories, in whatever way it unravels before us.