By Mary Angus-Yanke
When I began to think about genealogy, I had known only one grandparent – My grandma ‘Doll’. Doll passed away when I was four years old, and the stories of my ancestors with her. All my other ancestors had all either lived in Europe at a time when long distance communication was very limited, or they had already long-since passed away.
All of this got me to thinking about how fascinating the concept of genealogy is: In the last five generations, I had known only four of the 31 ancestors in my family tree – myself, my parents, and my grandmother – and yet through their genes, every one of them are still a part of who I am now. In fact, I was to learn that many of them had made huge changes in their lives for the sake of the futures of their family – including me. How absurd is it that someone I knew nothing about considered their biggest life accomplishments the things they did to contribute to the lifestyle I have now? And that some of their qualities and physical appearance are still alive in me now? They all lived only about 100 years before me, so it follows that someone who follows five generations – about 100 years – after me will also know very little about me. And yet, some of my qualities and appearance will still be alive in them and that of his/her other ancestors who are alive with me today, I have no idea who those other people are. Yet one day, some descendant of ours will be one and the same person. These are some of the absurd things about genealogy.
Who were my ancestors, and where did they live and work? What are second & third cousins – and who are mine? Where do those cousins live now and what are they like? Do they know anything about me or the family we all came from?
Eventually, I was to learn that among my ancestors were many builders, some soldiers, farmers, and grocery store owners. Among my husband’s ancestors were many farmers and a few soldiers.
As far as I can tell, the soldiers were mostly unwilling ones. Between us, our ancestors fought against one another in the many European wars of the last few centuries, with different grandfathers, uncles or cousins being in the Canadian, American, British, Fenian/IRA, Russian, German , Polish, Prussian and Romanian armies. Some ended up prisoners of war, in so-called ‘work camps’, or as war heroes. Some family branches ended then – killed in one war or another.
Grandmothers, aunts and cousins were left at home, and carried on their own with family life, despite that being dead-center of a war zone where they took part as members of resistance movements made necessary by the occupation of the others. And, how my mother’s version of being ‘liberated’ meant freedom, whereas for my husband’s aunt in Germany this meant the end of her family’s life as they knew it.
They were all just happy to get through it alive, and left Europe as soon as they could to try to get away from all the war. Which is how we all ended up neighbours in Canada or the United States where we made communities and families together.
I would learn that in one family branch, there are no second cousins at all as my grandfathers siblings died together in a tragic accident, whereas in a different family branch are 260 second cousins! All of these cousins have extraordinary life stories of their own, with soaring successes, devastating failures and hardships, including one who survived a brutal attack by one of Canada’s mass murderers, and a great many really inspiring people who share my gene pool. I would also learn that in another family branch, an ancestor was banished to Canada after serving a prison term in Australia – and after 190 years I’m still working to re-connect with the family he left behind – if they even exist.
How different families can become in a few generations! And how they stay remarkably the same over many.
I’ve since met cousins in every part of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and throughout Europe. Together, we have one thing in common: Our fascination with who our family is and where we all came from. This fascination with genealogy grows in me with each new discovery .
What will you discover about your own family as you begin to work through your genealogy?
There is only one way to find it all out for yourself: Start looking! You just never know what you’ll learn.