Have you ever wished you could jump on H.G. Wells’ time machine, or visit Jack Finney’s mysterious apartment in the famous Dakota, and travel back in time? As a child, growing up in Connecticut I was mesmerized by the idea of going back to some wondrous place and meeting people who now only exist in memories. As an adult who spends many, many hours looking for her ancestors, I can think of no better way to gather the information missing from my family history research. Obviously, time machines and apartment portals are not available to us. We use libraries, online databases, family history programs, diaries, newspapers, family interviews and reference books for our research. Some of us call this form of time travel “genealogy”.
It is no surprise that someone who once fantasized about time travel would become interested in family history. I grew up in a very small family – my maternal grandmother, one sister, and two parents who didn’t get along well. Life at home was often contentious. Due to a family feud which began when I was eight years-old, I spent most of my life estranged from my father’s side of the family. As a result, I knew next to nothing about an entire set of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with whom I share a last name.
I left home at a young age and started building a life. I moved around a lot – from Connecticut to New York City to Washington, D.C. and back to Connecticut. I finally retired from a career in which I reinvented myself more than a few times, and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. One day, during a conversation with my sister, I realized I was the last person in my family who remembered my maternal grandfather and could recall conversations he had with my grandmother about their life and families in Germany. It suddenly became important to start writing down those memories before they were lost forever. I started out just wanting to know more about this one man and his life. He was going to be my only focus. So much for best-laid plans. Once I started wandering around the online world of genealogy, I knew I couldn’t stop there.
There was this other mystery – my father’s side of the family. I now had the time, resources, and curiosity necessary to find out more about these people and where they fit into my time-space continuum. As I tentatively began searching online databases for the ancestors of these unfamiliar people, I discovered a family rich in history and tradition and not the horrible people I grew up believing they were. The more I researched, the more interested I became. And the further I traveled back, the more I understood that often quoted phrase, If we know where we came from, we may better know where to go. If we know who we came from, we may better understand who we are. We all carry inside us bits and pieces of our ancestors. As it turns out, I knew very little about any of them.
There is something thrilling and frightening about moving forward into the past. Every time-traveler knows there is a very real, and very fragile relationship between the past and the present. As I travel back in time, unraveling the branches and untangling the twigs of my family tree, I will share what I learn about my ancestors and what they teach me about myself. Along the way, we will meet the people whose decisions and sacrifices brought me to this place and time. Come along and let’s see where the journey takes us.