Saturday, November 4, 2023

Everything Changes


Last weekend, I taught a class on using social media for genealogy. While this is one of the subjects I enjoy presenting on, it is also a topic which needs frequent updating. Why? Because social media is constantly changing. In fact, just after I had updated my presentation's section on that flighty online entity now known as "X—formerly Twitter" and shared someone's, um, tweet about where that online genealogy community had migrated, what should occur but that one of the newer options had already decided to close its virtual doors, effective the beginning of this month. With social media, everything is subject to change. 

We can expect the online world to be rapidly changing; it's the nature of that universe. But this weekend, I took in an entirely different scene of change. It just so happened that I picked the most perfect weather for a getaway to the ocean. Soaking up the sun as I stared out over the mesmerizing blue of the water, I was reminded that the last time I had visited this beautiful spot, it was after a raging storm had blown waves high over the cliffs and across the shoreline road—surely a terrifying sight to the homeowners in the nearby neighborhood. It wasn't hard to spot the reminder of those sudden changes, even in this beautiful sunshine. The walking path—stairs and all—had been bitten into by a raging sea which was determined to leave its mark on land once considered safe. Everything changes, even the rocks bolstering solid land from the encroaching sea.

So here I am, struggling to sort through the changes in Uncle John's family, especially the changes in surnames for both his own and his wife's Polish immigrant relatives. And I sit here, wondering how anyone could consider changing something as immutable as a name, when it obviously happens all the time. If a business can morph from one form to another, why not an individual? If even the coastline lies defenseless against forces of the sea, why do I expect my ancestors to exist through history like some human rock of Gibraltar?

There has been a trend, lately, to view our genealogy through the lens of social history. Taking the macro history which swirls above our heads as it impacts the entire world and blending it with the micro history of our ancestors' personal timelines can give us a far different readout of what life was like for those relatives of ours as they traveled their own lifespan. Those events, whether enormous or inconsequential, became a part of the barrage of changes having an impact on our ancestors. Changing choices, changing paths, changing both big and small decisions, those swirling influences made our ancestors the people they turned out to be.

If, instead of simply picturing our ancestors through the three main lenses of vital records—birth, marriage, death—we could portray them as the living, dynamic, changing individuals they surely were, I think it would bring them to life for us, once again. If nothing else, perhaps that would allow us to understand them a bit better, especially for the choices they made—or failed to make. Given the span of an entire lifetime, surely for this we should also be encouraged to realize everything changes.  


  1. "Living, dynamic, changing individuals they surely were" - that is so true. Even concentrating on just a tiny handful of ancestors who lived 160 years ago, it is very hard to nail down the mental and emotional changes they went through internally. Having the same mindset when studying about the lives of thousands of ancestors and their descendants is a challenge. But I always like to discover even small details that could reveal their motivations.

    1. Lisa, the story of some of the relatives that you've written about was full of challenging changes, given the historical context. It is a gift when we can ferret out even the small details about their lives. And it's not just the impact of those historical details upon our ancestors, but in turn, like a network effect, the actions those details inspired them to subsequently take.

  2. My husband's gggrandfather used two completely different first and last names. One set was Polish, the other English. The funny thing is that there were numerous articles in local papers during his life time and both names were used, even in the same articles. Later in life, some of his sons used one last name, the other sons, the other last name. The town they lived in was predominantly Polish, so using the Polish name would not have been a unusual. I would love to find out where he got the English name he used. (he and most of the sons were born in Poland).

    1. Now, that's an interesting story, Miss Merry. I've heard of Polish immigrants changing their name from the old culture to the new, but not switching back and forth, using both forms concurrently!

      And yes, I'd love to know what the inspiration was for the new name version for my grandfather, too. I sometimes joke that he made up his mind while waiting for his wife to make breakfast, since the name he adopted was the name of one brand of oatmeal.


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