I hesitate to use the term genealogy when I describe my family history research. Why? Because I am not very good about the data – filling in family charts with the names and birth dates of distant cousins doesn’t interest me as much as the stories about the people on the chart. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled if my research brings me to a previously unknown relative with family photos, stories, or simply a shared interest in the family history, but when I look at my family tree, I am drawn to the little branches that stop abruptly. These nubs represent bachelor uncles and spinster aunts, those who married but had no children and those who moved away, never to be heard from again. They also represent children and young adults whose lives were cut short, leaving behind siblings and parents to remember them. These are the stories I grew up listening to my grandma tell, and these individuals were mysterious to me and I always wanted to learn more about their lives.
Unfortunately, my attraction to these figures tends to set me up for disappointment as a researcher. Often the content of the stories my grandma told is all the information there is on the family members. But sometimes it is possible to flesh out their stories using the myriad of resources available to us today.
My grandma used to tell me about her Aunt Rose who never married and supported herself working in a department store in the city. Grandma always liked Rose and thought she was very polished and fancy. A simple search on ancestry.com shed more light on where Rose lived and worked. She was employed in the millinery department of St. Paul department store (which would explain her appearance to my grandma), and she also worked for a time at the National Biscuit Company. When I looked at the Clontarf, Minnesota archive I discovered that Rose also worked at a hospital in Iowa and kept current with her insurance policy with the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Clontarf. She wrote letters to the Auxiliary secretary, inquiring as to the health of her uncle and said she would be home soon for a few weeks to help care for him. A little research, together with my grandma’s stories helped to paint a picture of what Rose was like – an independent single woman working to support herself and help her extended family.
When older generations pass away, it often takes the younger people a while to become interested in family stories and history. During this lag time, details become fuzzy, memories fade, and letters are thrown away. This is where resources found on the internet can help fill the void and begin to put the pieces back together. The research I do for my own family history is the same that goes into tracing an Irish relative who emigrated to America. This broader approach to family history allows us to learn more about our roots and what makes us who we are.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but some other family members who have piqued my interest (and imagination) over the years include Uncle Jackie who fell off the threshing machine and died of tuberculosis of the spine, little Francis who died after eating poisoned plums, and cranky old Aunt Maggie who never married because her boyfriend “snuffed himself out” – he blew out a gas lamp in his hotel room.
These people deserve to be remembered just as much as those who had families and descendants of their own. There is usually more to a story, something to extend that branch just a bit further. The same goes for Irish people wondering about a member of their family who “disappeared” to America. It is not too late to find out what happened to them.
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