Many people start doing their family histories for reasons. Perhaps they hope to gain admission to prestigious organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution here in the U.S. Or perhaps they hope to find some farflung link to Royalty in Europe.
That was not the case for me personally. And I think many people have alternate reasons why they take on such an all-consuming hobby.
My grandfather was John Robertson. If you happened to spot him in a crowd, he would not seem to have any qualities that would allow him to stand out. He was elderly when I was born -- and to anyone other than family he came across as being a bit *rough around the edges". He was NOT one to socialize, he had his own habits and quirks. But to myself and my immediate family, he was a jewel.
Pop, as my grandfather was called by all who knew him, was always hiding information about his family. It was something that was NOT discussed. He would, on occasion, tell stories about non-specific things he did as a child, but as far as telling any sort of useful information that could be utilized in future searches -- he was always silent. From early childhood on, I would cling to the few stories he told me. And the name "Barney's River" always stuck in a corner in the back of my mind.
The catalyst for me to start seeking out my family's roots was the death of my mother at the age of 43 of pancreatic cancer. Both of my grandparents were still living when she passed on. Her death at such a young age was a devastating blow to my grandfather. He had been told by doctors that he would never have children because of an adult bout with the mumps. But he had succeeded in having this one child. She had lived long enough to have two children of her own, but this did liitle to stop his grief when she died. Having children of my own I can only imagine what he was going through when he buried his daughter.
Pop was a changed man after he returned home to New York. He still carried on with the important routines he always did, like feeding the stray cats in our backyard, or going on his grocery runs. But the joy had gone out of his life. The enthusiasm he usually approached things with was gone. And many times I would find him in his room, with his rosary, closed off to all except his thoughts and his prayers.
It was clear that we could do nothing for him but be there for him, ready for the time when we hoped he would let the grief loose. Dealing with death is a long dark tunnel for the ones left behind. With luck, most can pull through.
This was a time when he finally started looking back, and allowing me to share some of the memories that he hadn't in the past. He had hidden away some pictures of his family, along with a handwritten note from his mother in Canada.
The joy of genealogical research (at least for me) has been in finding links, however small. The first real "bombshell" for me was when Pop brought out the one picture he had of his mother. That face was the same face that looked back at me while I looked at the photograph. And it was also my mother's face -- and mine -- and now my son's! The resemblance, with slight variations in coloring, was so strong as to shock me speechless! This woman, who I never knew, was family in the deepest sense of the word. The eyes that stared back at me in that 60 year old picture were mine.
Several months after my mother's death I screwed up the courage to ask Pop about his family. REAL questions -- the sort that would allow me to find evidence of where these people came from and who they were. I knew from past conversations that the odds of my getting anything useful out of him were extremely low -- almost non-existant.
My grandmother was very interested in doing a family history, because she knew that at least one of her father's families was an "old New England" family, rich with stories dating back to the American Revolution and before that. She was the one who thought that I would be the only family member Pop "might" open up to about his family history.
She was wrong. For the first time in his life my grandfather got angry with me. REALLY angry. He ordered me NOT to look into his family history. He said there were some things that needed to be left alone. And then he realized that his anger was so shocking to me that he calmed down. BUT -- he was adamant that I should NOT go looking for his family. WE were his family as far as he was concerned -- the past was over and done with.
My grandmother made sure that all the clues he had left behind about his family came to me. The few pictures, his naturalization certificate, even his rosary and his checkerboard set were mine. She knew how close we had been in life and she knew how hard it was for me to give him up when he was gone. It was the kindest act I had ever known her to do, considering the fact that she was giving up her husband's prized possessions to her granddaughter.