Going Out Of Our Tree

Heather has always loved history. And she’s always loved lists.

Now that she’s discovered genealogy, I might not see her again until June.

“Ooh, Scotty!” she calls, staring at a computer reproduction of a handwritten census record from a forgotten generation. “Look at this!”

To be fair, both of us have always had at least some interest in the family tree. Heather knew that John Chapman, aka “Johnny Appleseed” was a distant ancestor of hers; I knew of a 18th and 19th century relative who’d translated the Bible into Sanskrit, as well as a rumored family connection, through the Careys, to Anne Boleyn. And we both had plenty of relations who had caught the bug, whether it was her grandmother visiting old Kansas graveyards or my uncle, a Rochat family expert who once hosted an 80-year-old Swiss cousin as she toured the country … by motorcycle.

So I guess it was somewhat inevitable. Especially when Heather got a year’s membership in an online genealogical service for Christmas. Suddenly, our nights have been filled with Hargetts and Leatherwoods and much more, many with curious stories of their own.

She’s found Southern ancestors who deeded slaves in their wills.

She’s found a relative who was acquitted of murder, after shooting a neighbor who was trying to stab him. (The neighbor’s family, naturally, told it a little differently.)

And while we knew about her Civil War relatives who had been in Andersonville prison and on the doomed Sultana – a steamship that blew up and killed 1,800 people, many of them returning Union soldiers – we hadn’t known that I’d had a forebear who’d fought in the War of 1812.

I felt a familiar curiosity as I peered over her shoulder at the growing entries. It was only later that I recognized the feeling.

Darned if it wasn’t like being a newspaper reporter all over again.

People have often asked me why I got into newspapers. (Actually, these days it’s phrased more like “Why on Earth would you want to be in newspapers?” but oh, well.) And there’s a lot of reasons, from a love of writing to a teenaged hope that the job might score me Bronco tickets some day. (Again, oh, well.)

But at the root, it’s simple. I love telling stories. I love hearing stories.

And I’ve learned that everyone has a story worth hearing.

I’ve told this to middle-schoolers and heard “Not me!” Usually, within about 20 minutes, I can prove them wrong. Sometimes it’s big, like the tale of a World War I veteran or a fifth-grader who organized her school to raise money for Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes it’s smaller, but no less worthwhile, like a child who’s on the staff of her elementary school’s first newspaper. And sometimes, it’s just plain weird, like the man who’d been mistaken for someone else with the same name since junior high school, to the point where he nearly got arrested for what his doppleganger had done.

It’s all lives touching lives, history being made at the personal level. And in a sense, reading and writing about those lives is almost an act of caring, a way of acknowledging that those lives matter, that there’s more to the world than what’s caught inside our own skin.

Ultimately, in knowing the stories of others, we understand our own just that little bit more.

Maybe even the part that reads family trees at 1 in the morning.