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Facts & Arguments Essay

Barking up the family tree Add to ...

I remember having to create a family tree more than once in elementary school as part of history lessons. We had to list our parents, brothers and sisters and grandparents. That was it. These assignments were attempts to make us start thinking about the past.

I grew up hearing stories about relatives from my parents and other close family members. A few years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to create a more detailed family tree, but it wasn't until my daughter was born last year that it became a bit of a mission (or obsession).

She's growing up far from my American family because I moved to Saskatchewan almost 13 years ago after falling in love with a Canadian. While my daughter may not see them often, I want her to have some connection to the people on my side of her family.

Adding aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents was easy with a little help from my parents. My father had already put together a detailed family tree for a portion of his mother's family with the assistance of relatives, and one of his cousins provided me with more distant branches to that part of the tree. The more I've found out the more I want to know.

I've communicated by phone, e-mail and Facebook with relatives I've never met, and even a few my parents have never met. I reached them throughout the United States, where our family settled after arriving from various parts of Europe in the late 1800s. I relish every new fact or possible lead.

However, it's important when setting out to do a family tree to be prepared for the things you may learn. Some tidbits will be interesting and heartwarming; others will be troubling.

I've learned of distant relatives who engaged in less-than-noble endeavours, including murder. I learned that my great-great-grandmother gave birth to 13 children, but only seven survived to adulthood and her youngest was born after her husband, the baby's father, had died. I also learned that she went on to have as many as four more husbands.

And I unfortunately found names from distant branches of our tree on lists of those who perished in the Holocaust. This was the one place I had hoped to learn nothing new about my family.

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I learned that my grandmother, who is 99, has at least six living relatives from her generation. The youngest is 90, the oldest 101. My grandmother's sister is 92. The grandchildren of that generation are my cousins of varying degrees. I know of more than 100 cousins when I include my mother's side of the family.

I now know more about my great-great-uncle Louis, who introduced his younger sister Mary to his friend Sam. It was love at first sight, and they married and had three daughters, including my grandmother. My parents have a copy of Sam and Mary's wedding invitation that Sam created himself.

I have audio interviews that my dad conducted with my grandmother and my grandfather's sister in the early 1980s. He asked them about their families and their own lives. I've sat and done similar interviews with my parents. I've collected photographs from my parents' and grandmother's collections. And I've downloaded copies of ship manifests, social security and census documents that include names and dates of immigration, birth and death of family members.

When she's older, I'll pass all of this along to my daughter and tell her the same stories I grew up hearing.

But it isn't just what I've learned that has made this such a worthwhile endeavour. I found a second cousin on Facebook who gave me his father's phone number. I passed the number on to my mother, who is his first cousin, and she called him. They hadn't spoken since her family moved from New York to California more than 50 years ago.

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When another of my mom's cousins found out about my project, she said she would call her sister to find out if she had more information. The sisters apparently had a falling-out years ago and hadn't spoken in some time.

Researching family history can be tedious, time-consuming and frustrating. There have been a lot of questions that no one has been able to answer (one of my great-great-grandfathers was thrown out of his home in a village in Russia by his father, but we don't know why) and it's always disappointing when I hit a dead end.

My loved ones are starting to wonder about my dedication to this project, and some of the tangents it has taken me on (I used Google Maps' Street View function to grab a picture of the building that housed my grandfather's store more than 40 years ago), but so far their patience seems to be holding out.

I'm doing this for my daughter, but it's also for me. I want to know, in some way, the people my parents told me stories about. I want to know where I came from. I want to remember those who came before me, because that's what they would have wanted. Isn't it what we all want, to be remembered?

Heather M. Ross lives in Saskatoon.

Illustration by Andrew Wheatley.

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