I’ll admit it, I’m a family history junkie. And not just my own, but really everyone’s family history. I’m fascinated by the stories we all can tell, and how intricately our lives are woven together — good and bad. Embarrassingly enough, my vice is watching TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (a series that follows celebrities researching their genealogical line) and Long Lost Family (a series that brings together long lost family members using research and AncestryDNA) during my kids’ nap time while running on the treadmill. I’m living it up over here, let me tell you! (Face-in-palm moment as I’m admitting this publicly!) After binge-watching quite a few episodes, I jumped at the chance to take my own AncestryDNA test when they ran a promotional sale (more on that some day . . .)
The Stories That Bind Us
Now, I mean this in the most respectful way possible(!), but growing up, my dad would literally put us to sleep telling us our family history stories. We’d roll our eyes and try to change the subject. But as I grew older, I realized why his own family research was so important to him: he was abandoned by his own father at an early age, and researching the genealogy on his mother’s side gave him grounding. A 2013 New York Times article entitled “The Stories That Bind Us” discusses research by Dr. Marshall Duke of Emory University that found that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Whether we realize it or not, we all have a deep desire to know where we came from; we desire to know where we belong in the grand scheme of life.
Real Life Mad Men
Growing up, we’d heard tidbits here and there from my dad talking about his father: when they lived in Birmingham in the 1950s, getting his hair cut at a barber shop next to the Alabama Theatre, when his mom taught at Jones Valley Elementary School, and his dad worked at Pitney Bowes downtown. He remembers going with his mom to pick up his dad from the Birmingham Airport after business trips. My dad didn’t remember much about his father other than that he was a well-dressed businessman who often carried a briefcase. When my dad was only six, his father packed his things, told my grandmother he was leaving her for his boss’s wife (think Mad Men, but real life), and if she didn’t agree to the divorce, he would kill her. And that was it. Remember, this was the 1950s: there were very few divorces at the time and no custody agreements, alimony, or child support. My grandmother was devastated and, eventually, hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. My dad and his sister were sent to live in foster care. Somehow, his father got wind of this, and he picked them up for a few weeks until my grandmother was released. During those few weeks with his father, my dad met his new stepmother, her children, and his baby half-brother.
That was the last time they saw each other. After that, my dad never heard again from his father, not even a birthday card. As I grew up, my curiosity got the better of me . . .
Thank Goodness For Technology
Thanks to the Internet, public records are easily accessible during this day and age. I don’t even remember how I found this, but during college one day, I came upon my dad’s father’s death record: he died in 1995 in Covington, Louisiana. Fast forward ten years, and one day I had the novel idea to search for his obituary and see if my dad’s half-brother was listed as a survivor. (I don’t know why — I’m weird like that!) I searched and searched and kept hitting dead ends, but I persisted until I found it! Not only was my dad’s half-brother listed, but so were his step-siblings. Next stop: Facebook! There are about a million men on Facebook with the same name as my dad’s half-brother, so I typed in the names of other listed survivors. Sure enough, one came up (who also happened to have a Facebook friend with the exact name as my dad’s half-brother). Being the shameless, bold woman that I am (ha!), I messaged him right away, thinking, What have I got to lose?
I about fell out of my chair when he responded yes, he knew about my dad; yes, he wanted to meet us; and yes, he had thought about him over the years and wondered if my dad and aunt were okay. We immediately talked on the phone — he sounded just like my dad (only without the Southern accent)!
I “introduced” my dad and my new uncle on the phone that night, and then my new uncle came to town to meet us all a few days later. I had never seen my dad smile as big as when he opened the front door and saw his half-brother for the first time in 50 years. They discussed what happened after their lives went different directions and how their father was not a good man — how my dad was actually spared further grief not having him in his life. I witnessed firsthand much healing and closure once they reconnected decades later.
Virtual Family Reunion
Soon after, I built a family tree on Ancestry.com (I know . . . I’m 80 years old . . . eyeroll!) and came to “meet” (online) many other relatives from my dad’s family line we otherwise would have never met. One such acquaintance lives in Nevada and came across this never-before-seen photo of my dad in his father’s arms taken in Birmingham. She mailed it to me last month (and almost 70 years later, this photo ends right back up in Birmingham). Another relative met me for lunch and gave me a place setting of my dad’s paternal grandmother’s antique china along with a photo of her eating from it. All these family “artifacts” have become cherished possessions, as I never expected to meet anyone from my dad’s family line, much less meet new friends and long lost family members in the process.
There is much pain, suppressed emotions, and brokenness in my dad’s life stemming from the loss of his father at an early age. But the overarching theme here is this: God used that pain and allowed him (and is still allowing him) to be a teacher for the past 45 years, and in so doing, he has been a father to many who are fatherless. His greatest privilege is helping children without parents know they are loved by him and by their Heavenly Father.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Acts 17:26-28: “From one man he [God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” I personally love my “appointed time in history” and all the technology we have available to us as we research and meet other relatives. I have so much more to say, and so many more stories to tell, but I’m already over my word limit on this post as it is! Maybe another day . . .
Have you researched your family history? It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but it’s actually quite fun — and entertaining, to say the least!