May 22, 2017

Road Trip to the Past - Day 1: “Fun on 81” or “Storied Pasts”

The first leg of our trip was up interstate 81 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Because travel would take all day, we had no agenda other than to get there. We packed a mix of CDs for the car but never actually listened to them. Instead we talked about family history – stories about immediate family, memories of parents and grandparents, and secondhand stories about great grandparents and further back. Some of these secondhand stories came from my in-laws. Some came from my wife’s research. The ones from my wife had been shared with her parents before and were often met with blank stares or lukewarm interest. But as this trip went on and we got more familiar with the citizens of this family tree, these stories became more real, colorful and suddenly had context and texture.

I felt like the roles were suddenly reversed. As a child at family reunions, I didn’t soak in the stories and characters of my family tree. I wasn’t interested in it. I was more interested in playing with cousins of similar age. I’m sure the older set at these reunions were frustrated at the disinterest showed by their younger counterparts. Now, as an amateur genealogist sharing facts and stories with older family members, I often encounter apathy or mild interest at best.

It’s not until someone becomes immersed in family history (intellectually, geographically, or otherwise) that the spark is ignited within them. And that’s what this trip was all about. My wife commented that her interest had waned a bit in recent years. But now she was on fire again for her family history!

TIP: Download your computer files and research onto a flash drive or laptop so you can refer to it on the road. Also, a personal hotspot or mifi is helpful to do research on the road or in areas where an internet connection is unavailable.

May 17, 2017

The Splenda of an Agenda

One of my reasons for reviving this blog is to chronicle a trip my wife and I decided to take with her parents. We went to Pennsylvania and Ohio to do some research on her family tree and visit some of the sites of her paternal line. Taking valuable vacation time off work to do this, we wanted to make sure we spent our time wisely and got the most out of this trip.

As I’ve learned on this genealogical journey, you can chase a lot of rabbit trails. When gas money and hotel costs are on the line, you can’t afford any boondoggles. So we started by coming up with a strategy. What lines did we want to pursue? What individuals in our tree did we want to focus on? What sites are associated with them that will yield the most information or context?

At the top of the list is my wife’s 2x great grandfather, Parris Eaches. We believed he was a stagecoach driver on the National Road and was apparently a very colorful fellow. But we didn’t have much information other than that. We didn’t even know if we had the correct spelling of his first name! So we decided one of our first stops would be Harrisburg. As the capital of PA, we believed their state archives should house all the census records and newspaper obituaries we needed to fill in the blanks.

Then we planned to head west to Pittsburgh where he is buried, and on to Ohio where his children eventually settled. Ohio is also home to the National Road Museum where we hoped to see some great artifacts and exhibits on the history along Parris’ work route.

Of course we also scheduled some other worthwhile stops like Gettysburg. But we had fun constructing the guardrails for our family history road trip adventure.

Stay tuned for my account of our trip…

March 24, 2017

Receiving Grace

I’ve already written about adoption here. But I recently got to experience it a little closer than before. My sister-in-law and her husband just completed the foster-to-adoption journey and we got to attend the final adoption court hearing. It was a joyous celebration for all the family that came into the courtroom. The judge seemed to relish her happy duty that morning as it sharply contrasted the other cases on her docket. Then she paused for pictures with the newly formed family.
It was a very short proceeding. But the journey to get there was a long one fraught with worry and frustrations. Watching this process taught me a lot about God’s grace. First of all, the adopting couple chose this little girl. Circumstances and many other factors eliminated other children, funneling them into a relationship with her. The timing had to be right. And several signs gave them peace about this particular child.

Then the biological parents had to terminate their rights. We are born into a sinful, broken world. Growing up here, we can get comfortable and accepting of it. But when we come to Christ, we are making a choice to break our bond with the world in order to pursue a relationship with our true creator. But the world doesn’t easily let go. The process of divorcing the world takes time and isn’t a straight path – there’s a lot of backsliding. Most people never completely make this separation.

My favorite part of the adoption hearing was that the child was given her new name. Her legal identity was sealed that day along with her familial identity. We saw Jesus do this to many of his followers – Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul. A new name is symbolic of becoming a new person in Christ. My new niece’s name – Grace.

Grace is now as much a part of the family as anyone born into it. As I watch her grow, she will be a reminder to me of God’s grace and how He adopted me into His family and how I was given His name as if I were His own son worthy of His inheritance.


February 13, 2017

A (not so) Long Way Home

I just finished reading Saroo Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home” on which the Oscar® nominated film Lion is based. It is the story of a young boy from a small village in India who falls asleep on a train and wakes up hundreds of miles from home with no idea where he is or how to get back to his family. This boy is adopted by an Australian couple and raised in Tasmania. Years later, as an adult, he uses Google Earth to retrace is childhood trek to find his village and is reunited with his family.

This story touched me because I remember when Google Earth came out. The internet was still very slow compared to today’s high-speed broadband. And I was living in California, almost the other side of the country from where I grew up. Like most people, the first thing I did on Google Earth was search my childhood home. I did this along with my coworkers who were mostly from big cities like New York or Philadelphia. They were astonished to see the green Tennessee forests and fields I grew up around compared to the grids of streets and buildings they searched. Some thought I was raised a country bumpkin after seeing the birds-eye-view of my hometown.

I think what captures us about this is seeing our childhood homes like we’ve never seen it before – from above. Saroo Brierley comments on this in his book. It was a remarkable tool to help him piece together his origins from his fragmented memories. But the only way to be certain was to see it from the ground.

“A Long Way Home” also reminded me of a not-so-long journey I took about a year ago. I was in my hometown on a warm spring weekend with nothing planned for the day. I was talking with my mother about how she grew up on a plantation farming community. I asked her when she last visited her childhood home and she said she hadn’t been there since she left as a pre-teen. I was astonished! Since we had no plans and it was a beautiful day, we got in the car and hit the road.

The plantation was just a short 15-20 minute drive away. We drove past the main plantation house, now a museum, and many farms that were now operated by a state university. Finally we came to a field with what seemed like a short driveway.

“The house was back there.” My mother pointed.

“Well, can we go there?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t think anyone would mind.” I pushed “You know the people around here. They wouldn’t care if we just looked around.”

So we parked the car and began walking. My mother had been to the area many times over the years. But this was the first time she actually returned to the fields she walked as a little girl. We walked along a fence line until we came upon some woods. My mother looked around a little lost. I fearlessly trudged into the trees and soon found some foundation stones and some old rusting appliances. This was it! We had found it! Like archaeologists in a South American jungle, we were rediscovering the past! Little was left that looked like it did in my mom’s youth. But she could still point to landmarks and in the general direction where she would walk to catch the school bus or see friends.

Several hours later, we returned home and immediately pulled out the photo albums to pour over the few photos my mom had of her childhood home. We compared them to the memories of the area we had just explored. It astounded me that my mother had never returned here until now. It was so close! Perhaps she didn’t want to return. Perhaps she had painful memories there. Or perhaps she thought there was no worth in returning to the past.

I, however, gained a greater understanding of my mother’s journey - where and how she grew up. Like Saroo Brierley’s journey, I was glad I made the trip.

January 26, 2017

The Blog Awakens

Seven years later…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. But family history (as a hobby) can be like that. You set it down for a while. Then something comes along to awaken the desire inside you. Or someone else picks up where you left off. In this instance it is the former.

In the intermittent time a lot has happened in mine but mostly my wife’s family. This past year her uncle passed away. He was a busy guy, always tinkering with this, fixing that, or fiddling with something else. He had a vast collection of antiques and musical instruments. When the family gathered after a memorial service, his widow gave almost everything away to people in the family who she knew would cherish each item. I was given a banjo.

Now, I’m not a musician but I do have an appreciation for bluegrass music. This banjo is in pristine, almost new condition. When I got it home, I caringly went over it to clean off the dust. I tuned it as best I knew how and then I gave the strings an inaugural pluck. It sang out with a beautiful twang. It was a wonderful sound, probably the first notes it played in years. I gathered information on when and where the uncle originally got the banjo (a gift from his father) and will keep it in an envelope in the case along with a picture of him playing it.

I have a lot of learning to do on the banjo. I never even planned on learning the banjo. But I can’t sell or give this beautiful instrument away. It was given to me with the understanding that I would appreciate it and keep it in the family. And I’m not one to just let it sit in the corner gathering dust. There is a pull that draws me to it. I have to learn it. I must learn it. I’m never going to be the next Earl Scruggs or Steve Martin. But I have to try.

As I prepare to also take up this genealogical journey once again, I have to wipe away the dust and tune my strings again. Every time I think I’m out, it pulls me back in. I might be a little rusty, but it’ll come back to me. One day I might set it down for my last time. But, like my banjo, I’m sure someone will pick it up again.

December 15, 2010

“Who Do You Think You Are?” returns in 2011

In a previous post, I mentioned a genealogy themed TV show produced by Lisa Kudrow of “Friends” fame. If you caught it, you were treated to some interesting and often tear-jerking stories of celebrities discovering their family history. Matthew Broderick discovered his link to a Civil War hero similar to the one he portrayed in “Glory”. Meanwhile his wife Sarah Jessica Parker traced her lineage back to the Salem Witch Trials.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” will return January 21st, 2011 for another series of trips down genealogy lane. This season’s celebrity seekers includes Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Vanessa Williams, Lionel Richie, Ashley Judd, Steve Buscemi and Kim Cattrall. Look for it on NBC. Learn more here.

November 27, 2010

Major Minorities & Minor Majorities

A lot is made in our world about race relations. This has been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. We try so hard to make everything fair and everyone equal. But have you ever noticed that we aren’t so diligent with individuals? Most people make much ado about some minor part of their racial make-up.

“I’m one-sixteenth Native American.”

“I have a little Polynesian blood in me.”

“I’m descended from a Cherokee princess.”

When Halle Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress, it was a big deal because she was the “first black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar®”. President Obama is our “first black President”. In both cases, they have one white parent and one black, yet the minority side of their race is what they (or the press, or we) identify them as.

Why is the minority in us given dominance? Is it because we like to cheer for the underdog? Are we looking for sympathy or special treatment? Or do we want to highlight the hardships some of our predecessors had to endure?

As far as I know, I am 100% white man. I’m not necessarily proud of that. That’s simply who I am. When thinking about my family history, what I am proud of is the minority of people who truly did something revolutionary: the ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, the ancestors who fought in the Civil War, the ancestors who left family and friends to pioneer the western frontier, the ancestor who had a town named after him. Out of the 5,000 or so people currently listed in my family tree, a very small number of them did something brave, extraordinary or just original. These are the people I try to identify with and hope to find similar qualities in myself.