Family Historians live for those five precious words: I have something for you.
Let’s all just take a moment to remember that the amount of “stuff” I have (and believe me, I’m trying to eliminate a lot of it) in no way diminishes my deep longing (and yes, need) for mementos of familial significance. I may have no idea where I’ll put it or how I’ll document it or how to share it. Yet, I absolutely need it. Make no mistake.
Sometimes you expect it. Sometimes you almost plan it. You know that if you ask enough questions about a person or a situation, you’ll be offered a photograph or a letter or some striking piece of history that ties him into the fabric of your story.
And then, sometimes, it catches you totally off your guard. You are driving someone home after a Thanksgiving visit, and someone you haven’t seen in months greets you at the door with a brown envelope and says, “I have something for you.” Your heart races. Your pupils dilate. You feel the blood rush to your face. You couldn’t be more enthralled if it had four wheels, a hood ornament, and a bright red Christmas bow. This is the moment for which you didn’t even realize you were longing. For a moment, you even forget that your name is misspelled on the envelope. It doesn’t seem to matter at that moment.
What’s inside? Is it a letter? A death certificate? An ancestor’s attempt at a pedigree? Naturalization papers? Civil War records? Photographs? A lock of hair?
And then you remember: It doesn’t matter.
The contents of a small brown envelope or the contents of a trunk that’s been rotting in the attic. It doesn’t matter what’s inside. What matters is this: It’s been entrusted to your care. Someone, with some appreciation of the family history, feels that the best place for this treasure is in your keeping.
That’s a humbling realization.
I’ve had two moments like this in the past year. Both situations left me silent, soaking up the incredible information that was being gifted to me. Both situations left me stunned, overjoyed, silenced. The first came about at the Schmitzer Family Reunion in August. A woman I’d never met (who, ironically, had emailed me prior to the Reunion but I didn’t read the email until afterwards) handed me a brown paper bag full of Reunion logs, letters, and other information that I will be sifting through for a long time yet. I can’t wait to share it with my family.
But yesterday, when my dad handed me this small brown envelope of papers, I could hardly stand the 6 hour drive home so I could rip it open and sort through it!
I confess that I was frustrated at first. Several of the pages have apparent coffee stains, which is certainly not worth complaining. Except the two pages of handwritten notes (my secret genealogy obsession) where the coffee stains are more like blobs, making much of the document illegible. I need someone who can pull an Abbie Sciuto on the pages and separate the coffee from the ink, or something. I was also frustrated, initially, because the pages didn’t seem to make sense in context of one another. It seemed like random information, but I’ve been doing family history long enough that I should’ve known not to jump to conclusions! The pages actually belong together.
The first two pages document the marriage and children of Joseph and Jane Moore, my Scottish (according to this person’s research; Irish, according to some others) 3xG grandparents. The pages that follow document the descendants of his children, my 2xG grandfather, Thomas, and his brothers.
The Edward clan (on of my 2xG grandfather’s brothers) has been problematic for me for some time now. I’ve connected online with one or two of his descendants, but I have better questions than I have answers. Ironically, it is the text on his family that has the Coffee Blobbing.
The experience is further complicated by the lack of authorship. It is an excellent reminder to myself (and any genealogist, regardless of experience level) to byline and date my work. As it stands, most of the information corroborates what I already know, so it’s not problematic; the information regarding Edward, however, is obviously a photocopy of a handwritten account without apparent author at present.
What is a Family Historian to do?
She rolls up her sleeves, makes a fresh pot of coffee, and begins transcribing the documents before her while she waits for her father to call and answer some of her questions about where the information came from and whether it can be replicated or attributed to anyone.
Is there a better way to spend a Friday evening? Nah. There isn’t. There really isn’t. The truth is–frustration or not, we get sucked into genealogy because we love the puzzle. And we love new pieces, even if it’s a sky blue piece and you’ve already filled in the sky.