Can you think of the one item or artifact that first drew you in, and had you spending hours doing research?
Was it perhaps a single conversation that sent you off in search?
Was it the discovery of an old photograph or document that put you on the path of your love affair with family history?
What made you fall in love with the history of your family?
Recently, I have been thinking about this topic all over again, and it reminded me of a post I wrote last year about what gave me my start in family history.
Today, I would like to again share that post with you, with some new edits, and ask you to think about what gave you your start in family history research, and what made you fall in love with it.
Thanks for reading.
One Friday night in 2011, on GeneaBloggers BlogTalkRadio, Thomas MacEntee asked us to consider this question: "Who gave you your start in Genealogy/Family History?", and further to that, "Who helped you along the way?". On the chat board, immediately I typed in the first 'name' that popped into my head, 'my father'. After the show I sat down and gave the question some serious thought. In my world, the history of my family is one about which my family members, particularly my parents, were often reticent to talk, but every now and then I was given brief glimpses.
If I was to pinpoint when I felt as though I was being actively encouraged to uncover our family's stories, then I would have to say it was born out of two conversations, and both of those were with my father. The first began during a very long commute, and may have been spurred on by the desire to avoid uncomfortable silences. The second was filled with detail and driven by the fact that my dad was dying.
1. The Second World War and free leather boots.
Truth be told, my dad and I had not spent a lot of one on one time together as I was growing up, so at first I think each of us was a little uncomfortable with the seventy-five minute drive to the university. Initially we talked about the weather and sports, and he talked about his work a bit, but after a while there were noticeable lags in the conversation.
Then, one day he asked me what I was working on at school. There are two things about this conversation that I remember very clearly. First, my dad began by saying, "I'm not an educated man, but would you mind telling me about what you're working on at school?". I remember feeling a little stunned that somehow I'd made my dad feel as though he had to justify asking such a question, and I certainly didn't want him to feel that way. I talked about my belief that life offers us all sorts of education that is in many ways better than anything you might ever learn inside a classroom. The second thing I remember about that conversation is that I didn't want to just talk about what I was doing, I wanted to know about what he had learned in life, so I started asking him a few questions. I learned so much from his answers.
One of the stories which stands out in my mind from this conversation is one in which he talked about working for the Irish version of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) during the Second World War. Ireland was officially neutral during this war; despite that, and given their proximity to England, the Irish government built air raid shelters, distributed gas masks, and required homes to hang black-out curtains. When the air raid sirens sounded, it was the job of members of the ARP to go out into the streets to ensure street lights were extinguished, citizens were taking shelter, curfews were being respected, and black-out curtains were drawn so that no lights were visible.
To say I was dumbstruck by the story of my father as a 14 year old doing something so risky is an understatement. All I could say was "Wow", and then I asked him what prompted him to join, and his answer was even more astonishing.
"They gave us leather boots for free Jenn", he said. "Leather boots! We were very poor, and my whole life I wanted leather boots, and they gave them to us for free. Those boots were a thing of beauty."
I felt a catch in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes when my dad told me this, and I literally could not speak. Just then I understood that I really had no idea of the kinds of challenges my dad had faced in his life, on his way to being a successful self-made man. I was so very grateful that he thought enough of me to share this story with me.
2. A diagnosis and a map.
Very clearly I remember the phone call I received from my sister-in-law saying my father was ill, and I needed to go home. When I returned home I was shocked to see my father. To me, Dad was always a very powerful man, tall and imposing. He was a handsome man with a mass of blond hair, and he took pride in his appearance. Within a short time Dad had lost a lot of weight, and now looked to me like a small boy curled up tight under soft blankets.
About two weeks before he died, one afternoon my father got out of his bed and joined us downstairs for tea. His once formidable figure, which walked firm and deliberate everywhere he went, now shuffled slowly toward the room in which we were to sit. My mother followed close behind carrying the tube through which the oxygen travelled which was now helping him breathe. His slight body swam in a soft cotton shirt and corduroy pants which were now much too large for his disintegrating frame. We didn't talk about what was going on in his body; we didn't mention the 'C' word, although clearly it was growing within him with a voracious and vicious appetite.
Dad brought an old road map to the table, a tourist map really, of Dublin. His hands moved over the map pointing out places of significance: St. Stephen’s Green, the Four Courts, Trinity College, O'Connell Street. I was struck by the beauty of his hands. On the back of each, a light dusting of soft beige down covered skin which was a whitish grey colour. His nails were perfectly square and unblemished, like smooth pebbles. They looked as though they were manicured, which they were not. His hands concealed the anger at work in the rest of his body. They were peaceful, even happy, and they were willing to share.
As he pulled the map out full across the dining room table it made a lovely crinkling sound, and I felt as though I was being presented with a gift. It shoved back the plates and tea cups, the napkins and little fancy cakes that my mother had laid out — the river Liffey, Phoenix Park, Dublin Castle, The General Post Office. His hands skimmed over the poor areas of Dublin which he had known best. I didn’t know exactly why he brought that map to the table, but he was dying, and it seemed to be of irrational importance to him that I look at it. It was as if he was trying to prove that he had come from somewhere real, a place of substance.
He began to talk about his life, and as he spoke, I dug down into the bottom of my purse, found a crumpled piece of paper, and scribbled down notes about what he told me of his family. He seemed quite happy to answer any questions that I had. Throughout my life my father and I had been on opposite sides of a lot of issues, but at that moment I felt honoured that he would share his stories with me. Even though, like my mother and my brother, I didn't fully understand that he would be dead in a couple weeks, I guess a part of me knew enough to recognize how important this time was, and for that I am very grateful.
So, that is where this journey began for me, with these two conversations. My love for my family history has just grown from there. Each and every time I visit Ireland, as soon as the plane touches down on the tarmac, I whisper, "Thank you Dad, thank you for once more bringing me safely home". Each time I uncover a new piece of the puzzle I say, "thank you Dad, thank you for helping find this." Each time my dad told me any of his stories during those drives to the university, I always made sure to thank him for sharing them with me, and I thank him each and every day for guiding me on this wonderful journey of family history research.