I always thought researching one’s ancestors was a job for old people. I’m researching mine now and I’m old, so I guess I was right.
Years ago, my mother gave me a short family history prepared by a relative of ours. I looked it over. A few pages caught my attention, but most of the information — when each ancestor was born and died, and who married whom — was too dull to bother with. I put the papers aside.
Now I’m enrolled in a yearlong program at the University of Washington called Genealogy and Historical Research. My goal is to take the few pages from my relative’s document that I found interesting and, based on more research, turn them into a novel.
The program has two instructors, one who focuses on genealogy and the other on historical context. Our end-of-program assignment is to blend the facts of our ancestors lives with information about the times they lived in. What was life like when our great-grandparents or great-great grandparents were young? What were the mores, politics, entertainments, foods, and fashions of their era?
So what have I learned about my ancestors? They all seem to have been Southern Baptists and they produced lots of preachers. Family members the age of my grandparents and great-grandparents stood on the side of the South in the Civil War. It is likely that ones going even further back were slave owners.
Among relatives alive in my lifetime, I found out that one grandmother had only a fourth-grade education. Not sure why, but I found this tidbit distressing.
My research project is focusing on a woman who lived between 1869 and 1945. She married a “gospel preacher” and the two of them traveled to Peru as missionary and missionary’s wife.
Researching one’s relatives is time-consuming and like other kinds of detective work will lead to many dead ends. It also offers surprises and a certain level of satisfaction with pieces from your past. In searching for information on the missionary’s wife, I’ve learned more about her daughter, a writer of children’s books who lived in the Seattle for many years. I found a photo dated 1961 in the “Seattle Times,” which features her and four other women, who were planning the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference, an event still going on. I’ve attended it for the last five years.
In another local newspaper article, this relative encourages writers not to give up, to learn to live with rejections from agents and editors, because they are a fact of the writing life. I received my first rejection last week. While disappointed, I didn’t feel at all defeated. Maybe because I thought back to my relative’s advice. She had not known anything about my writing aspirations in life, but it felt like in death she was giving me encouragement.