Sunday, May 30, 2010

Simplify, Simplify . . . If They'll Let You!

Almost as soon as I started with Great-Grandfather Joseph, I found myself researching Great-Grandfather Vincent Dufauld as well, because two of Joseph’s sons married two of Vincent’s daughters, and a third son of Joseph married a half-sister of the other two women. I also found that I couldn’t separate either great-grandfather from his Native American affiliations.

Great-Grandfather Joseph’s wife was the daughter of an Anishinaabe (=Ojibwe or Chippewa) woman and a French-Canadian voyageur named Pierre Forcier. Great-Grandfather Vincent was also of mixed-blood ancestry, and the mothers of his three children (all daughters) were full-blood Anishinaabe. How I would research that, I had no idea then. But, being a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe myself, I certainly wanted to know about that side of my maternal heritage.

Traditional genealogical practice, as I discussed in a previous post, is to research just one family line at a time, which all-too-easily turns into researching only the males.

Well, I was already a grandmother, and I realized that if I didn’t get a start on all the family lines (female as well as male) in my children’s ancestry, I might die of old age without making reasonable progress on any of them. So I coolly decided to ignore the “one family at a time” mantra and to get a start on all of the family lines at once, including those of my husband (to his delight and the delight of his relatives).

At first, this seemed to be a straightforward, if complex, process. It soon became overwhelming.

You see, I had been given a lot of information about the most recent generations, but I was determined to confirm and document what I’d been told before trying to go farther back in time. I had been trained in research techniques for both literature and history, and I could not ignore that training. Besides, what’s the point of passing on to future generations the story of their family if you’ve researched the wrong family?

Almost every family has legends about earlier generations; I wanted facts. Documents usually gave me facts—although I had been trained to be skeptical about their accuracy. People enjoy exciting family stories about their family and like to think they’re related to famous people with the same surname, but that’s not proof, even if Grandma believed it. In some cases, what I had been told about my grandparents and great-grandparents eventually turned out to be entirely correct. In others, it was wildly off base.

I did follow the standard genealogical practice: before moving backwards to previous generations, I searched for all of the families involved—French-Canadians, Anishinaabe, mixed-bloods, Danes, and Russian and Polish Jews—in every type of American record available: vital records, census records, immigration and naturalization records for all of them, property records, military records, everything I could think of.

My father was born in Denmark, which meant I only had to follow his trail in the USA before looking in Danish records. I had visited Denmark three times and met my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins; I knew their names and where they lived, so I knew where in Denmark to start looking for records and made very good progress with my Danish research. My in-laws cooperated splendidly, so I made good progress with documenting my husband's family in this country. I also made reasonable progress with my mother’s immediate family and those of her double cousins, and with many younger-generation cousins, who were all quite eager to share what they knew about the Chosa-Dufauld extended clan and to learn more.

I kept a list of all the surnames I was searching and systematically collected huge masses of printouts (later on, digital copies) of all family records I found. I made daily Google searches of the Internet. There were a lot of names, a lot of microfilms, a lot of online searches. I had papers piled all over the place, and every so often I would bung some of them into a filing cabinet.

I was beginning to feel like Lord Ronald in Stephen Leacock’s tale of Gertrude the Governess, who “flung himself from the room, flung himself on his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”

No, I still did not fall back on the old “follow one family line at a time as far as you can get” rule. There were too many lines and too many crossovers, and I might not get to all of them in my lifetime, especially since I was still determined to document my female ancestors equally with the males.

Besides, I had the very strong sense that my bedroom was becoming very crowded at night, filled with ancestors urging, even begging me to find them and tell their story. You’d think that someone who has been dead for a couple of centuries would be more patient, but no.

Put yourself in your remote ancestor’s place: if no one has spoken your name with affection and a sense of kinship for many generations, it’s only natural to want to be found, to be remembered and cherished again. So when a descendant of yours starts to research her or his ancestry, you pay that descendant a visit during sleep, and point that descendant in the right direction.

I know this sounds weird. Skeptics will say that when I would suddenly wake up knowing—absolutely, positively knowing what I should do to find the records that would solve a particular problem, it was just the product of my subconscious mind which had continued to gnaw away at that problem while I was doing other things. And sometimes, I know that is the case. In fact, I will often deliberately set a problem aside to let my subconscious clarify the issue.

However, I truly believe that in my perception of nightly visitations, there is more at work than an overactive imagination. I believe that we are more than physical entities; we are more than the sum of our physical parts. And, particularly on my mother’s side of the family, the ability to make or keep a connection with one another—living or dead—without physical means is particularly strong. Sounds crazy, yes?

Not in my family. I’m not talking about ouija boards or seances or anything like that. I’m talking about direct communication between living family members at considerable distances, even if they’ve got the whole planet separating them, without using any physical technology. This happened many times between my mother and me (and between her and her siblings) over the years. So one day, when I urgently needed to talk to my adult daughter (who was in the military and stationed in Europe at the time, and who was unreachable by phone because she was on duty), I concentrated on sending a mental message to her to call home.

Half an hour later she went on break and called home. “I just had a feeling that I should call home now,” she told me. Sheer coincidence? I don’t think so, and neither does my daughter.

I’m not going to give you a long recital of other personal examples at this time. I’ll just say that I have witnessed or experienced so many of them at first hand that I have no doubt that the connections are real, both with the living and the dead.

If you believe in any kind of afterlife, it should not be unreasonable to accept the idea that the dead can and do talk to us, if we take the trouble to listen. It is not unreasonable to believe that those who have walked on before us retain their concern for their family, including their descendants. Most of us would like to be remembered, to have the stories of our lives passed down to future generations. I believe that many of the dead have the same desire, because once I began researching my family’s history, quite a number of my deceased kinfolk told me so.

They came to me mostly at night, in my sleep, when the bustle of daytime life was over and I could hear them—lots of them, talking to me not in Danish or French or Ojibwe or Yiddish but in the universal language of the human spirit, and I could understand what they said.

I still get these visitations. Some just come to say hello. Some just want to tell me they approve of what I’m doing or to thank me for what I’ve done. And there are still a fair number, as yet unidentified, who come to urge me to get on with finding them.

It was all rather overwhelming at first, but I certainly wasn’t about to tell my nightly visitors to go away. For one thing, I didn’t want anyone to get annoyed with me for my neglect. For another, I realized that some of them were trying to help me out.

Still, I knew that I couldn’t possibly satisfy all of them at once. I needed to prioritize—somehow.

So I decided that I would work with one extended family for a while—a few days, a week, a month—until I needed to regroup and decide which source to pursue next, or until I hit a brick wall, or until one of my other ancestors woke me up and give me a gentle nudge in the night to point me to where I might find more information about that branch of the family.

Once I made that decision, I started making better progress, and got more frequent nudges. But Great-Grandfather Joseph? Not a word from him—yet.

I still get those nudges, because genealogy is not a closed-end pursuit. You may run out of records, but you never run out of ancestors; everyone has millions of them.

So I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I still hear the voices of various long-dead relatives in my sleep, telling me where to look next to find their records—or giving me a gentle reminder that there is still work to be done on their branch of the family tree.

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