For reasons I can't quite explain, I've always been obsessed with my family history. Heck, I'd say I'm probably interested in anyone's family history, because it's fascinating. But one's own seems almost like lore – you grow up hearing names, anecdotes, little factoids at various times, never knowing how all of them connect until you really try to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
My mom says I was a chatty child, even before the age of two. That tracks. She also said I was always curious about all my aunts and uncles, and would routinely rattle off their names (sounds annoying), almost as though I was building a family tree in my little head. Well, she didn't say that last part, but how else would you explain it? More than once while I was growing up, and when I was all grown up, I drew family trees on the largest pieces of paper I could find. Even when it wasn't homework. And because my grandmother was forthcoming, or perhaps because I badgered her, she told me all the names she could think of.
I'm not sure whether it was because she could tell me so much, and therefore made it seem more accessible, but this was the branch of the family I was most keen to research. Maybe it was all the pretty names and the promise of adventure and travel that came with them. Maybe it was receiving Christmas trees, baubles and cakes from a great-uncle I'd never met. Maybe it was that I wanted to know more about "Lilian", whose books of poetry with her own verses written alongside the published poems reminded me of myself.
I didn't get much further than those trees, though. I didn't know how.
Seven years ago, in February 2016, I travelled to Chunar. I met my aunt and great-aunt for the first time. They told me stories and showed me photographs. I saw the house where my great-grandparents lived and died, and the cemetery where they rested. I returned more determined to find something, and as so many times before, started by Googling their names because it's all I could think of.
And boom. I came across a family tree on Geni.com that seemed familiar. I poked around a bit, revived my dormant Geni account, asked my mom some questions. I was almost sure that this was one line of my family, and I reached out to the researcher. We merged our trees. Suddenly, I had a whole host of unfamiliar names, but not much more. It was exciting. It made me realise that I wanted to do my own research, not just to verify everything (as a good researcher should) but also for the joy of finding what there was to find. To look into all the other lines that remained a mystery.
I still had no idea how to do it, though, but I knew I had to find a way.
Nearly a year later, I came across an online course on genealogy. I had assumed that I would have to physically go in search of the records I needed, but I started to realise just how much information is actually available online. It is both strange and exhilarating. Of course, location matters; in India, we haven't had a culture of documentation, but because part of my family is Anglo Indian, and many of those church records are housed in the British Library, I could access them from a couple continents away. And so it began.
As a child, I loved reading mysteries. My brother and I used to make up/play games where we needed to look for clues to solve "cases". We liked the idea of a password to enter headquarters. We liked codes and ciphers, and disguising (or interpreting) handwriting. I always thought it would be such fun to become a detective when I grew up. With this project, in a way, I did.
I can't begin to describe the thrill of finding a name you're looking for on Find My Past or FamilySearch or FIBIS. Of realising that it is, in fact, your ancestor. Of pulling up the copy of a record handwritten a century ago. Of piecing together dates and details to try and put together a sequence of events. Of tracking down clues and following trails. Of painting a life story. Of looking through photographs and suddenly knowing what someone you've been imagining actually looks like. Of reading letters they wrote to people they loved.
I lose myself for hours every time I begin my research. There is no better feeling, despite the frustration that often comes with it, because of course there are days where you don't find the information you seek, months when you can't get past brick walls. I've kept a timeline of my research and there are long gaps when life takes over, and then I have to read through my research all over again to remind myself of what I've already found, because after a while, my brain can't retain all the names. When I skip this step, I often end up spending hours finding things only to realise I'd filed them two years ago.
Each ancestor has their own document, biography, folder. The tree is up-to-date with my research. Nearly a hundred documents have been collected, three hundred photographs digitised, two hundred letters read and catalogued. Three stories have been written, spanning fifty pages. A few connections made with distant and not-so-distant family members halfway around the world. All this in the last seven-ish years.
THE BEND IN THE ROAD
So whither next? I've been thinking about that for the last couple of years. Obviously I must continue, but it seems like a good idea to define the path a bit. (I listened to Amy Johnson Crow's podcast episode on the WANDER method for research too!) I have lots of names now, but it's always been the stories that interest me. I could continue to delve into my current research – there will be new leads to follow. Or I could turn my focus to other branches my family. I could also help others research their family history, or help them get started, or collaborate on telling their stories. That's where my head's been at, and why I started offering family history services. More to come soon.
I'm definitely going to try and write more, to tell more stories, so sign up or find me on Instagram @wildirisgenealogy if you'd like to follow along.
Oh, and if any of this interests you at all or you have questions, ask away. Not everyone gets starry-eyed about their ancestors, and I definitely want to hear from those of you that do!
There is always something to be found.
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