Saturday, July 29, 2023

What a Stray Dog
Reminded me About Genealogy


I was not kidding the other day when I quipped, "The dog ate my research." In the midst of a summer-long dog-sitting obligation for a friend on vacation, my daughter found herself the unexpected foster "mom" to a stray dog who leapt the fence into the yard of the place where she was housesitting. That suddenly transformed that job into two dogs to watch—at least, until the owner showed up to claim that other handsome German Shepherd—and dog-walking duties for two big dogs required an assistant.

That assistant was me.

When days turned into weeks without any sightings of a bereft dog owner, the real dog of the household began to feel—and act—like the red-headed stepchild instead of the true canine resident of the property. Thus, we invented special canine outings for a change of pace. On balmy summer evenings, we'd drive to a different park in town, take the poor dog for a walk someplace new, then wrap up the evening with a stop at a local ice cream shop before driving home for the night. That's when I realized a stray dog was teaching me something about genealogy.

Don't suppose I'm about to launch into a reprise of my thoughts on Cat Genealogy and Dog Tags. The lesson from this summer's dog-walking escapades opened my eyes to a different aspect of genealogy, specifically because those evening outings gifted me with a flashback to my own childhood memories. 

When I was a child, my parents indulged their love of ice cream, and shared that passion with me. On summer evenings, my mother would invite me to take a walk into town for an ice cream cone. Or my dad would pile the family into the car and take a leisurely after-dinner drive—after stopping for a scoop at the local creamery. Even visits to my grandparents in Ohio included trips to that special ice cream shop out in the country, the one right next to the dairy farm. 

Those childhood memories hid latent in my memory—until jogged by those dog-sitting duties and their accompanying ice cream detours this summer. And, along the way on those dog-walking excursions, as I'd share those lazy-summer memories with my daughter, I realized I was missing one aspect of a complete report of my family history: my own story. Yes, I can tell these memories to my daughter if I think of them, and maybe some day, she'll recall the moment I shared the stories and pass them along to another generation. But even better than that would be to write down those recollections as they occur to me, in a format where they can be saved and passed along.

Recently, an emailed note from Family Tree Magazine was headlined, "Genealogy Questions to Ask Older Relatives." The article provided several interview questions to ask those "older relatives," with those suggestions organized by category. Of course, some of us look around and realize the only ones left to fill the shoes of those "older relatives" are us.

Far better, in such cases, is the realization which dawned on blogger Lisa, "The Shy Genealogist," when her son texted her to ask for a picture of his grandfather, who unexpectedly died when her son was a young child. "Is it ironic that the genealogist in the family has never shared this information with her own children?" she asked. 

Lisa has since shifted her focus to preserving the stories of her more recent ancestors—to share her own memories of these people whom she knew, or those whose stories she remembered her own relatives sharing with her. 

I've been reminded of a fuller scope of such tasks when I hear researchers urge each other to do one additional step: write your own story. Some of us may groan to think of journaling, or shy away from documenting our own past. It is work, but it is a labor of love which someone will someday appreciate receiving—preserving a tangible reminder of who we are and what meant the most in our life.

I never would have expected receiving such a reminder by events cascading from the chance appearance of a stray dog on our doorstep. The lazy feeling at the end of another summer evening, with the refreshing delta breezes coming in over the water at the marina, or on the drive home from a different dog-walking adventure, passing a building in a part of town where I hadn't been for a long time, somehow triggered memories and instigated conversation, reminding me of all the stories still needing to be captured and preserved.

Genealogy may be the recording of names, dates, and places in our family's generations, but it also is capturing the memories of those whose lives, in whatever way, made us what we are. We are preserving the essence of what those roots have fed us. While it is important to record the data on our distant ancestors, no government document can divulge the personal memories we have of the relatives we've known over our lifetime—their likes and dislikes, their personality, little details only close family would recognize. If we don't pass along those memories, who will know?

It isn't hard to realize that we are part of our family's story, too. I think we already know that. It's just a lot of work to add such an additional task to the endless quest for yet another generation in the family tree. So we conveniently "forget" to put ourselves in the picture.

I know. I'm one of those who tend to forget that, too—until a stray dog made me break from daily routine and reminisce. There is a lot to remember, now that I think of it. But when taken story by story, like walking that dog step by step, writing can transform those memories into a form to someday pass along. 

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