Tag Archives: genealogy

hoarding ancestors

I keep watching the not-so-inspiring episodes of Who Do You Think You Are as I grow my family tree on Ancestry.com, and this week I was treated to Gwyneth Paltrow calling a great-grandmother a hoarder. It is all the rage, after all, to talk about hoarding. Like many hoarders, this relative suffered a double loss of mom and brother in a short period of time and her college education started to fall apart. Paltrow’s grandfather apparently often said that while growing up his house was not a home and that he and his siblings were sent home from school for being dirty, and so on. His mom just didn’t take good care of him.

Paltrow, like many celebrities featured on this show, had a curiosity to understand the genealogy of mental illness, instability, or other past traumas that the family doesn’t like to talk about. She commented that it’s so hard to know what’s true, even when your family members tell you with some level of certainty about the past.

D.’s mom sent me a class project on family history that D. completed in the 1970s with some nifty details written out by his teenage hand. As I entered these “facts” into Ancestry.com, though, I picked up misspelled names and mistaken roots. A few of my queries came to the same dead-ends as his own family search some thirty years ago. These details, even the recorded ones in the archives, are never fully trustworthy. Names get changed, misspelled, ages mistaken, locations shifted, and names of locations change throughout time as well. It’s a little blurrier the further back we go, and while we can trace the family lineage back through the generations, I somehow do not feel any more certain that this is really who we are or where we come from.

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ancestral hoarding

I jumped down the rabbit hole of my ancestry on Saturday in almost obsessive fervor as I whizzed past the 1600s ancestors I’ve known about down to the kings of England, princesses of France, to Charlemagne, to Clovis and back even further to latinized named kings of the West Franks until I arrived at rock-bottom, 6 AD.

I come from one of those families that has thoroughly documented that infinitesimal piece of DNA that represents our surname. It was not difficult to link to the first known ancestor in England. As I tracked back his wife, though, I started to wonder just who these people were to cause records to continue back so far. For a moment D and I thought I’d end up at a priory in England with Tom Hanks proclaiming me the last ancestor of Christ. Almost relieved when the lineage stopped in “Austrasia” near the supposed time of Jesus’s birth, I couldn’t help but wonder why all these people, not likely really linked to me genetically, were populating my head. I suddenly felt a swarm of community around me as the names filled my genealogy program with pages of cross-referenced data.

Last night I began the ascent into D’s lineage, and although I didn’t get far, I did come out of the search with a few ships’ passenger lists with his father and grandfather’s names on them. I went to sleep late last night, my head foggy and crowded, and throughout the night awoke with thoughts of being tucked in by the hoard of ancestors. Somehow this knowledge is comforting – to know these names, so easily forgotten, providing a trail of a past, even one we can only imagine is real. I felt comfortably enmeshed in this web of stories, on the tracks of others who have done the research before me, leaving my own notes for some who may wander down the line later on. What else might our ancestors have passed on besides changed names, nationalities, homelands and numbers of children?

story hoarding

I had a rare online chat with my step-mother on Saturday which led into questions about genealogy and then my great-grandfather and his mysterious life. While my step-mom unapologetically said she wishes she were interested in her ancestry, but she’s not, she very much wants my father to share his stories about our past. She dialed me up and gave the phone to my dad.

My dad and I spoke for about 45 minutes and he recounted stories about my grandfather’s childhood, growing up mostly with a single mom. I typed as quickly as I could while he chattered in a sort of non-linear fashion, thinking of additional points and background stories as he went. As he was telling me the most poignant stories that had been handed down, he remembered that while my grandfather was dying in the hospital, he had taken a tape recorder and recorded their dialogue. I don’t know what they talked about specifically but my dad confessed, “You know… I never listened to that tape.”

I urged him to find it and have it converted to digital format, something that baffles him completely. Instead he got sidetracked again and said, “You know … we want to start cleaning out the house and selling some of this stuff. But it’s probably going to take a long time.”

My father has been plagued with respiratory problems for the past five or more years. I’m fairly convinced it’s from the mold and dust that has accumulated in their stuff. He doesn’t seem able or motivated to have his health problems resolved. Instead he tells me he probably isn’t going to live that much longer – to which I nearly almost always reply, “but what if you do? What if you live to be 100?”

Closer to the point, however, are the stories that my father has been hoarding. He has family genealogy books and albums stored in the house, but his brain is the most cluttered space, crammed full of specific dates, names, places, and other details. I was able to take the information he gave me over the phone, from stories he had not lived himself but had heard from his parents, aunts and uncles, and I could corroborate most of the details using familysearch.org.

He’s unable to write down or record his thoughts in a usable way. I told my step-mom to put him in the car on the way to church, ask him a question, and hit record on a digital recorder. The man is haunted by so many stories that he relives readily, eagerly even, but he’s unable to save them for us. Why hold on to something valuable, only to watch it deteriorate from disuse? Why conjure it up in your mind repeatedly, obsessively, but be unable to materialize the object, to put it in its rightful spot, to store it away or relinquish it totally?