Once in a while I get sucked into an electronic wormhole of Netflix and Youtube videos. Frankly, it's a wonder any of us get any work done tethered to a 24-hour digital circus. Last week, the carnival pulled me into a new escapist wonderland; it lured me with the promise of drama, conquest, history, love, sex, and scandal.
I had fallen into the the nerdiest of wormholes; I'd discovered Ancestry.com.
Ancestry is a genealogy database that lets people track their family histories. Basically, it’s Facebook for the long-forgotten dead. No smiling selfies, just somber census reports, church records and lots of beautiful cursive handwriting.
How’s that for an exciting Saturday night?
My online binge began by nonchalantly typing in a few family names, and soon it snowballed into combing military and immigration records. An hour in, I started to see links to strangers who shared my name. The site teased away at me suggesting possible third-cousins-twice-removed. Suddenly 5 hours had passed and I had tunnelled my way back in time to a great, great, great grandmother who bore 10 children, 110 years ago in a long forgotten village.
I was hooked. And slightly deflated.
I'd expected this experiment to make me feel more connected to a place or a community. Instead, I was struck by how alien this world was to me. Church records listed religions and trades totally foreign to me. Census records gave names and professions of the men - women were simply described as daughters and wives.
Scrolling up the family tree as far as I could go, there was a name at the top of the pyramid that caught my attention.
I'd seen his name before. It was woven into an old blanket, but I'd never realised the dusty old thing was actually a family heirloom. The wool blanket had been stuffed into a closet with cedar balls and long forgotten - much like the family history. Magnus, It turned out, was a Protestant farmer born in the 1800s, and he was more than the namesake of a scratchy blanket. It turned out he was our great-great-great grandfather.
Armed with this clue, I spent a rainy afternoon rifling through a shoe box of old family photos. My nerdy perseverance was rewarded when I finally found it - a sepia-washed photo of the grand 'ol patriarch himself. Magnus looked pretty stern and god-fearing. I had to wonder what him and I - or any of these people - could possibly have in common. What would we have thought of eachother if we could have met?
Let's face it. That would be one awkward dinner party.
I posted the blanket photo on Ancestry along with the photo of Magnus, and a few days later a stranger from South Carolina wrote me a note, explaining that she too was a great-great-great grand-daughter of Magnus. Turns out, Magnus and his wife were responsible for dozens of decendents scattered around North America. Makes you wonder how often we might be unwittingly dating our own distant cousins?
I wondered if this southern cousin of mine might challenge my birthright to the blanket. But, luckily it was just a blanket and not a castle, so a battle of clans was averted.
So, does knowing where you come from really help you understand yourself? Not really.
Or maybe it depends on what you discover. I'd hoped to find more adventure and intrigue in my family history, but this back story was less thrilling than a Nancy-Drew paperback.
Still, there was a bit of magic in discovering the blanket had a story. After a century of families living, moving and dying, that blanket had somehow survived the journey. And since it ended up in my closet, I felt compelled to honour the little puzzle piece and share it with Geiss' offspring that might also be wasting a Saturday night on Ancestry.
It didn't feel like I had found "my people" on this genealogy binge, but I was fascinated and humbled to see in graphic detail how hundreds of strangers had all sprung from this one marriage. The site manages to point at a dot on the humanity map and say: “You are here”. It's reassuring, but also a fallacy since we are related to everyone on the planet ... if you go back far enough.
Thankfully, Ancestry doesn't go that far back, so I'm deterred from burrowing back in time to search of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great Aunt Cleopatra.