I caught the genealogy bug long before TLC's program, “Who Do You Think You Are?” aired. Growing up without paternal grandparents fueled a natural curiosity in me about who they were and where they came from. Thus, when Ancestry.com appeared, I was naturally drawn to it. Ditto for TLC's program; however, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, while entertaining and informative, depicts researching one's ancestors as deceptively easy.
Each week, “Who Do You Think You Are?” (TLC Tuesday evenings at 9:00 pm) profiles a different celebrity's genealogical quest. In television land, the celebrity simply types his/her ancestor's name into the Ancestry.com search field and bingo! A wealth of information pops up; the celebrity then travels to the ancestral home of his/her relative and discovers birth/death/marriage certificates and other information that connects the familial dots. In reality, genealogy research takes years. Yes. Years. And sometimes the dots are never fully connected; the family history remains incomplete.
Though I have been digging into my father's family history for many years (often with the help of an excellent genealogist, Mr. Richard Pope, who specializes in Connecticut/New York genealogy), there is still much I do not know and probably never will uncover about my relatives. Growing up without any knowledge whatsoever about my dad's family, imagine my surprise in discovering my great-great grandfather, Peter, served the Union Army during the Civil War. Despite being 47 years of age and suffering from rheumatism, Peter enlisted. Captured by the enemy, he somehow made it back to his unit and recuperated from illness at Acquia Creek Convalescent Field Hospital in Virginia. Peter and his wife, Mary (who died of typhoid), had six children, each with a story of his/her own...interesting, compelling narratives sadly lost to time.
Some may question the time and expense of genealogical research. To me, however, uncovering the slightest detail about my ancestors is well worth the years and dollars required. My ancestors are far more than mere names on a census list; they hold the very root of who I am. I found my talents, interests, and personality traits buried in my family tree, which contains a famous writer and many, many headstrong Irish folk. I am who I am because of who my ancestors were.
That being said, there is an underlying sorrow inherent in researching family history. My ancestors, people who are part of me and vice-versa, were swallowed up by time, forgotten, reduced to nothing. Their struggles, triumphs, joys, relationships, and disappointments faded into the very dust they became. For example, my research revealed my grandmother had a baby girl who lived only two days. This little baby mattered to her parents, who undoubtedly were grief-stricken at her loss. But the child was buried and forgotten. In my heart of hearts, I believe that's wrong. I searched long and hard to find details of my grandmother's life. It should not have been so difficult. I should have known about her, should have known about my great-great grandfather, Peter, an Irish immigrant who could neither read nor write. I should have known about his wife's battle with typhoid. I should have known about his children, a prize fighter, a teacher, and a tavern owner among them. These are my people. This is where I came from.
Family history is important; we can't fully understand and appreciate the present if we do not comprehend and appreciate the past, which encompasses the people who came before us who made us what we are today. Nobody should have to wonder, “Who Do You Think You Are?” We should know.