My friend Jan D. turned me on to Ancestry.com and now I am totally messed up. I don’t sleep, I don’t bathe, I just keep filling in my family tree and clicking on that stupid little waving green leaf. If you’ve seen the website, you know the leaf means somebody on Ancestry has turned up another tidbit of fact – and I use the term loosely – about a long-dead great-aunt.
But I click on it because it might be important. Proof, finally, that yes I am descended from Catherine the Great.
More likely, one of my cousins in Rushville, Indiana (you know who you are) misspelled a name, which appears to Ancestry.com’s voracious, data-crunching computers to be an interesting new fact. My neck and shoulders hurt, and I think I’m getting tendinitis in my right elbow.
And when I fill in my own little boxes, including my three marriages, my part of the tree will look like it got doused with Miracle-Grow.
But my mother is so excited. My God, after decades of schlepping around a shopping bag containing little slips of paper with the approximate names of unfamiliar maybe-relatives, her computer-adept daughter will finally use her talents for something worthwhile.
Like finding out what Mom’s long-dead mother-in-law was hiding all these years.
Seeing all those connected boxes spread out across the page, those names representing whole lives and generations, is kind of sobering, though. This is my family! All those great-great-great grandmothers and fathers and kids and their offspring, lived and died – you see it, and you can’t help but feel a bit melancholy. Their stories are poignant. Life was hard. Like in Austria/Hungary, my great-grandfather’s family couldn’t offer him any land on which to start his family. The land had run out. These farmers were forced to choose between conscription in the Austrian army (and serve as cannon fodder for the Turks), or leave their parents and grandparents forever and move to the great unknown America.
Hah. One ancestor said the winters in North Dakota were so terrible, they would have been better off in Siberia.
I’ve unearthed ship’s passenger lists that show my ancestors immigrating from Germany and Hungary (I think we’re Transylvanian). Long lists of families. Typically, you see the names of the father (occupation: farmer), mother (occupation: spouse), and eight, ten, twelve kids. Holy hell, can you imagine traveling across the ocean in steerage with that lot? What guts. What strength. My relatives were powered by dreams and desperation.
I feel humbled. All those lives, come and gone. Born and died. Geboren and gestorben.
The span of human existence is short, and right now I am keenly aware of my mortality. I want to savor every minute, before somebody fills in the gestorben date on my Ancestry box. So I’m hanging up now. You, too. Go out and play, and enjoy your precious life.