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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.

The transformation began, oddly enough, in Memphis in December 1991, when two unrelated incidents led me to start rethinking my stance on the matter. I'll get to the first one later; the second occurred at a Christmas party, where I met a man who shared my last name. In the spirit of the season and fueled by a good bit of liquid holiday cheer, we marveled at the coincidence and speculated that we might be related, knowing quite well that, in fact, we were not: he is black and Baptist with roots in the Deep South; I am white and Jewish and entirely a product of New York City. He explained he was often taken for Jewish, at least by those who encountered him only on the telephone, but he did not, as far as he knew, have even a single Jewish forebear. He did, however, inform me that in the part of north-central Louisiana where his father grew up, there were hundreds of people named Rubin, all of whom were black.

Naturally, this stoked my imagination. How did this happen? It occurred to me, of course, that if I wanted to solve this mystery, I should just go down to Louisiana and investigate; but it also occurred to me that this would involve genealogical research, and that still carried certain negative associations in my mind. This could be the thin end of the wedge, I thought, a gateway drug to a full-fledged addiction. Start out on a simple academic quest, end up like those poor trembling souls at the Massachusetts Archives, ever frantic to find just one more ancestor. Did I really need this?

Perhaps not, but curiosity has a way of working on me over time, and after about six years I was able to rationalize that, since I wouldn't actually be tracing my own family tree, I wouldn't fall into the genealogy trap. I was wrong, as it happened, but by the time I figured that out it was far too late.

And here's the strange part: I never was able to solve that mystery, but I got hooked on genealogy anyway. It started early: the first time I pored over a Louisiana census roll and spotted the name Rubin in one of the columns, I experienced the same mixture of astonishment, excitement, and joy that I had as a child in the 1970s when, canvassing a local park with a metal detector, I dug up a quarter from 1892. Actually this was even better, because there was no chance some nosy grownup was going to call my parents and tell them I was defacing public property.

We were all grownups this time. At the genealogy library in Alexandria, Louisiana—housed in the town's old Carnegie library building—there were nothing but adults, along with several thousand microfilms and reference books. After a few days there I started to recognize a solid core of regulars, middle-aged men and women who seemed to spend every long lunch hour at the place, tracking down some great-great-grand-stepsomebody or other. I introduced myself to them; they, in turn, introduced me to some of the more byzantine corners of the lifestyle (genealogy, you see, is often too consuming a passion to be labeled a mere hobby), most of them linked somehow to the census, the old decennial government ritual that often seems rather dull to the uninitiated but which is absolutely indispensable to any American genealogical quest. There is, for starters, the Soundex, an unusual index that assigns numerical values to combinations of consonants; originally a Works Progress Administration make-work project, the Soundex has proven invaluable to legions of researchers by grouping together surnames that sound similar but are spelled differently—Rubin, Reuben, Ruben, Ruban, Rubinstein, Rabinowitz, and so on—and thus compensating for variables like the evolution of names, as well as census takers who sometimes had a casual relationship with spelling and good penmanship. ("What you have to remember," one Alexandria regular told me, "is that a lot of times the people providing the information couldn't read or write at all, and the folks taking it down weren't much better.") Furthermore, each census has its own quirky subcategories: the 1880 form, for example, contains a column to indicate whether or not the person responding to the survey was insane (a check mark in that column always makes reading the rest of the survey a more intriguing venture), while the 1930 census indicates whether or not the household in question contained a radio set. And then there is the great tragedy of the 1890 census, which burned in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., where it was being stored. If you want to make a genealogist sigh ruefully, just say "1890." You might even want to have a handkerchief handy.

Each find helped teach me that I am who I am because they were who they were.

Most significant, I learned that the peculiar feeling I experienced upon spotting a familiar name in the rolls was not unique. It was, however, quite addictive. Moreover, it seemed to intensify with every new discovery—especially once I made the transition to tracing my own ancestors.

It was only natural, I suppose. After all, I had done all this legwork, acquired all these new research skills; it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify not applying them to my own family tree. One day, while I had the 1900 census handy, I thought I'd try—just for fun, naturally—to see if I could find anyone in there from whom I was actually descended. And that's when the trouble really began.

If you're going to be serious about the pursuit, at some point you're probably going to feel obligated to visit the mecca of genealogy: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The place looms so large in the imaginations of genealogists that I was surprised to find, when I finally got there myself, that it wasn't some sort of tall, gleaming castle but rather a plain concrete box. No one seems to mind, though; on the days I went, deep into a frigid winter, dozens of people queued up to get in when the doors opened at 8 a.m. In the warmer months, I'm told, the line stretches for blocks.

It is, at first glance, no more impressive on the inside. Aside from the panoramic painting hanging behind the reception desk that depicts the intersection of religion and genealogy—and a large mural that illustrates how Stephen Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney are all descended from colonist Anne Hutchinson (a chart that doubtless inspires many a tired tree-tracer to plug on)—it looks very much like a typical research library, albeit a very large one. There are scores of computer terminals and hundreds of microfilm viewers and vertiginously long rows of file cabinets containing more than 2.5 million rolls of microfilm, and, on any given day, around 2,000 people using them; 850,000 visitors passed through the place at some point last year. Many of them arrive for the first time with a misconception of what the library is. "I can't tell you how often we'll get people in here who are on a layover for a few hours at the airport and just drop by to pick up a copy of their family tree," Tim Bingaman, a research specialist at the library, told me. "And I have to explain that we don't just have them on file."

Contrary to popular belief, the Mormons aren't really in that business (although many of their library's regulars—professional researchers—are), and what's more, almost all of the records you can find in that facility can also be found throughout the rest of the country and the world in local libraries and courthouses and archives. What makes the CLDS Family History Library so special is that it has them all in one place—and that, by and large, everyone who comes to visit the library has the same objective in mind. There is a certain camaraderie in the tree-tracing trenches, since genealogy is hardly a zero-sum game and everyone has a pretty good sense of what that guy in the next carrel, who just spent four hours poring over ship manifests and came away with nothing, is going through. But they are also unfailingly determined, and most of the time the place resembles nothing so much as a casino, rows upon rows upon rows of microfilm viewers lined up like slot machines, the people sitting at them rhythmically tugging the cranks, their faces slack as they watch page after page of film spin past, yet ever ready to spring back into joyous focus if and when they hit the jackpot and a familiar name pops up.

And even though the library has clocks and windows all over the place, a great many visitors pass six or eight or even 10 hours without noticing and scarcely without budging, because they know what I learned that afternoon in Alexandria, Louisiana, when I thought I'd take a break from tracing someone else's family tree and see if I could actually find anyone from my own. I did, of course, without too much effort; and then I found another, and another, names on a paper—not even a paper, really, just a photograph of one—that I'd heard before: a grandfather's uncle who was a pioneer in the movie business; a great-grandfather who owned a grocery store in Connecticut; another great-grandfather who made his living airbrushing photographs and who died of emphysema contracted from the chemicals he used in his work; a great-great-grandfather who emigrated from Russia in 1887 and died just eight years later, in his early 50s, of peritonitis. And with each successive discovery, that metal-detector-unearthing-a-quarter-from-1892 sensation increased exponentially, because each discovery matched a name to a story or a story to a name, and each connected me more securely to an ever-expanding network that linked me to a history, to my history, and helped me understand that I am who I am because they were who they were. Yes, on some level people get into genealogy because they want to learn more about themselves; but on another, deeper level they do it for the same reason that people do almost everything that's not directly related to putting food on the table or perpetuating the species: because they want to feel that they are a part of something much bigger than just themselves.

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.