Now, perhaps that's no more noble a rationale than vanity or self-realization; perhaps it's not even all that different. But it's also about as purely human a motivation as there is, and many a noble thing has been done with that as an impetus. And genealogists, in the bargain, get to join two new and ever-burgeoning communities: the community of their ancestors and the community they find online, in courthouses, and at libraries. And that's a lot more than many people will ever have.
As for practical advice: the most persistent bit I've heard floating about holds that the best place to start scaling your family tree is the branch closest to the ground—that is, you. What bits and pieces of the picture do you already have in your possession, perhaps without even realizing it? What stories and anecdotes and legends did your parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents share with you in your youth? You'd be surprised at how many of them contain at least a particle of truth.
As an example, I offer my own father, who would often, when I was growing up, tell me with pride about this ancestor or that: scholars, rabbis, philosophers, inventors, that great-grand-uncle who was writing and directing motion pictures a decade before the advent of talkies. But my father's favorite claim was that a first cousin of his mother's—a vaudevillian named Lou Handman—had written one of Elvis Presley's biggest hits.
Now, even as a child, this statement seemed preposterous to me. For one thing, I knew Lou Handman was several years older than my grandmother, which would have made him older than 60 when Elvis first started recording; for another, even someone as musically inexperienced as I was knew that Elvis didn't do vaudeville material. I shared these insights with my father, who stood by his story. The more he stood by it the harder I strove to dismantle it, generating a cycle not conducive to domestic tranquility. Eventually, I just dropped the matter and forgot about it.
Which brings me to the other thing that happened to me in Memphis in December 1991, a week or two before that Christmas party I mentioned earlier. I went to a flea market and came away with a box of about a hundred 78-rpm records, for which I paid a total of $6. I had been collecting 78s for some time, mostly to have something to play on a Victrola I owned. They were cheapest if bought in bulk, so that's what I did, taking them home, sorting through them, and giving my castoffs to friends or radio stations. I could tell by the label what year a record was cut, and I kept only those made before 1925, unless it was by a well-known artist or had something else of interest to recommend it. If it was a close call, I might even listen to it before rendering a judgment.
On the day in question, I was breezing through the box when I came across a disk on the Columbia label from 1927; the artists were listed as Oscar Grogan and The Columbians. I was about to toss it in the discard pile when I decided, for some reason, to give it a spin first. I cranked up the Victrola, set the needle down, and immediately went back to sorting, barely listening. But a minute later, I stopped short: I knew this song. I leapt up, ran over to the phonograph, yanked up the tone arm, pulled the record off the platter, and studied its label:
"Are You Lonesome To-Night? "Words and Music by Roy Turk and Lou Handman
I never figured out how to tell my father that he was right after all. Until now.
New Yorker Richard Rubin, the author of Confederacy of Silence (Atria, 2003), is at work on a book about World War I.