I was on an ancestry kick several months ago. Ancestral research is a difficult process made infinitely easier by services such as ancestry.com, which permitted me to research my family history in my pajamas. And if that isn’t the very definition of progress, I don’t know what is. I was also helped along by my poor grandmother, who did all of her family research before the advent of online ancestry databases. Without her immense initial effort, I never would have gotten anywhere.
For some, researching family history has been simple. In one line on my father’s side of the family, I’ve gotten as far back to the 17th century with nary a bead of sweat on my brow. My grandmother’s paternal line, on the other hand, has been a thorny maze fraught with dead ends. Her father seemed to have a penchant for adventure (read: trouble). He changed his name, and his life before moving from England to Canada is shrouded in mystery.
After a month of solid research, during which I spent almost every waking second not otherwise absorbed by obligation poring through records, I finally had to shut it all down. I am highly obsessive. Faced with a problem, I’ll skip meals and sleep in an effort to reach an answer. I was very literally exhausted.
But the process was not without reward. The beauty of ancestral research is not only that it tells you something about yourself, but it also gives you a glimpse of history in a personal way. Though I am cognizant of the class system in England, both now and — more prominently — in the 19th century and earlier, seeing that my ancestors were lower-class labourers opened my eyes to how fortunate I am to live where and when I do.
Today, I am thankful for living in a society that ascribes greater value to determination and ability than it does to birth.
My parents and I have all had the benefit of a university education. If you told my great-great-grandfather, who was a coachman and domestic servant, that his great-grandson (my father) would be a university-graduated accountant, he would have laughed. There was virtually no opportunity in his day for anyone to rise above the limitations of their birth.
How incandescent my ancestors must have felt, travelling by ship across the dark waters of the North Atlantic. Crammed into third class accommodations, the journey must have seemed endless, but on the other side of that horizon stood a new world, laden with possibility.