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New Roots

The Gene Pull

The curious joys and odd surprises of tracing your family tree.

I had my first date with genealogy on a warm July afternoon back when I was still in college. It was not, I must confess, love at first sight.

It was the summer before my senior year, and I had an internship at the Massachusetts Archives in Boston. After spending several weeks reorganizing ancient files in the bowels of that facility, I was asked to fill in for a sick staffer at the information desk. Desperate for human contact (not to mention an occasional glimpse of daylight), I immediately accepted; a history major, I delighted in the prospect of helping patrons learn more about John Hancock and William Lloyd Garrison, the Adamses and the transcendentalists. I straightened out my Oxford shirt and chinos, checked my posture, put on a knowledgeable-and-helpful-but-not-intimidating smile, and looked expectantly at the front door.

It took a while, but eventually someone approached me. He was not at all what I had expected: a stooped man in his early 60s, scruffy and disheveled, he looked as if he had spent years living in the subterranean storeroom from which I had only recently escaped. My smile never wavered; his never managed to surface at all.

"I want to find my ancestahs," he demanded. "From the Mayflowah!"

One day I looked up an ancestor—just for fun. That's when the trouble began.

He was not alone: for the rest of that day—and every subsequent day that I filled in at the information desk—I spent almost all of my time helping people try to prove that they were descendants of Miles Standish and his shipmates. They were young and old, educated and not, affluent and indigent, and every station in between, and every one of them was determined to find some link between themselves and that old boat. Not just determined—some of them appeared well on the road to desperate. It was as if they believed that finding this link would remove some kind of barrier standing between them and self-realization. I took it as mere vanity and quickly came to regard them with a mixture of pity and contempt. What kind of person, I thought, bases his or her sense of self-worth on the date and means of arrival of their immigrant ancestors?

Of course, this is exactly the kind of question that a 20-year-old who has only just begun to awaken intellectually, and who thinks he is far more astute than he actually is, would ask: it appears to carry a certain amount of heft, to address the frailty of human nature, while in fact it is judgmental and simplistic. But that's who I was back then; blame it, if you will, on long hours spent in a concrete bunker under fluorescent lights, alphabetizing the records of the poor souls who were incarcerated in the Bay State's various mental institutions between 1886 and 1909. I do.

Whatever the case, the experience instilled in me a great, if also greatly unjustified, distaste for genealogy. It would take years for me to shed that distaste entirely and more years to develop into the man I am today, an enthusiast (to use the polite term) who understands that while genealogy is indeed sometimes about things like vanity and self-realization, these are not necessarily bad things. And even if they are, I'm already hooked.

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