Saturday, December 25, 2010

The simple, happy rituals of reorganizing and reassessing 15 years of research

Generations of ancestors surround me while I work on my family history this winter.  Some are on the floor, or inside two new storage ottomans, or next to me on the couch in the living room.  Others are on the dining room table.  Many more are upstairs in my office.  They are on index cards, in pages of notes, in file folders, and in three-ring binders.  A select few have made safe passage to a new database on my laptop.

I am devoting as much time as possible these days to genealogy—specifically, my own Polish ancestors.  The French Canadians, Swedes, Scots, and Revolutionary War era Americans who occupy the paternal side of my children's family tree are on hold for the foreseeable future.

In 2010, I expanded my family research to include DNA testing, a variety of heretofore-untapped databases, and some much-needed background reading on Polish history.  This new input has led me to re-examine what I knew, or thought I knew, from my past 15 years of research.  A couple of DNA tests, a handful of new records, and suddenly the earlier generations of my family are shifting into new configurations, introducing new surnames, and living in parishes outside the pale of my past explorations.

All this reorganization and reassessment takes a lot of time, and a lot of thought.  I fall asleep at night wondering about my ancestors.  Where did Anna Mosiejko's family live?  (Not in Szczuczyn parish where her own children were later baptized, and not in any of the surrounding parishes I usually search, so maybe Kamionka or Ostryna?)  Is that szlachta Prokopowicz clan in Lack parish related to my maternal peasant Prokopowicz family nearby in Iszczolna?  Why were my paternal Prokopowiczes baptized, married, and buried from at least five different parishes when they lived in the same village, Poleckiszki, for a couple hundred years?  The marriages are understandable (couples were usually married in the brides' parishes, not the grooms'), but the other events puzzle me.

Celebrating individuals through index cards

Each one of my ancestors is an individual unique in their particular combination of physical appearance, personality traits, talents, and life experiences.  All I know of them, however, is when they were born, baptized, married, had children, and died (from "fever," more often than not).  The most direct observation I have of any one of them is when I view and print out the documents of such life passages. 

Curiously, these long-ago family members come to life for me on the index cards I use for extracting the important details from their vital records.  There is something compelling about creating a card for each event and paper-clipping all those cards together.  Is it the act of writing that ancestor's name, or of physically handling the index cards?  Holding the pen, touching the paper—this is a tactile process, my own little celebration of an ancestor's individuality.  Typing the same information into a computer simply does not give me this same feeling of closeness and connection.  The electronic database is handy and useful, of course.  Just not emotionally satisfying.

Even more gratifying is my ceremony of laying out all the index cards potentially connected to a particular ancestral line.  As I study them, patterns emerge.  I shift the cards around to form family groups.  Even the minor cast members here play a part in the drama; persons repeatedly serving as godparents or marriage witnesses tantalize with clues to other relationships waiting to be revealed. 

Baptismal records from the 1700s and early 1800s typically omit the mother's maiden name.  The parents may be identified, for example, as "Michal Rusc and Rozalia."  But over the years, one Hayduk or another serves as a godparent for this couple's children.  Perhaps Rozalia is a Hayduk?  More research will tell, either through the eventual discovery of the couple's marriage record, or through baptisms of children born a decade or so later, when mothers' maiden names became part of the church record.

Genealogy software might generate the same kinds of clues about possible relationships.  But would seeing these connections in Arial 10 point on a computer screen make me as happy as moving index cards around, identifying a new family group, and setting them together on their own corner of the dining room table as if I were building them their own little house?  For me, the answer is obviously no.  This is one aspect of genealogical research in which I am unabashedly old-school and loving it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

In 2010, my genealogical research trumped my genealogical blogging

After a very long absence from Basia's Polish Family, I'm back, with no apologies for my absence, but with an explanation: instead of blogging, I've been researching.  Genealogy has reclaimed its rightful position as the major passion in my life.  As a result, I have a lot of new information about my ancestry, which I am excited about sharing here in 2011.

It seems that most bloggers post entries every day.  My approach is very different.  Professionally, I am a journalist.  I have always believed that good journalism is based in providing new information—new facts and new insights that are hopefully helpful in understanding and navigating through life.  My career as a newspaper reporter and editor disciplined me to make every word count.  As a blogger, I don't write if I don't have something new to say.  Last January I realized that I needed to do a lot more research before I could continue to share my family story in a way that was satisfyingly meaningful to me.

Here are some highlights of my adventures in genealogy in 2010, with a promise of blog posts to come.  It's been a great year!

Y-DNA testing

In one of my early blog posts, I noted that I am descended from two Prokopowicz families.  All my life, I had wondered whether my father's Prokopowicz family was related to my mother's Prokopowicz family some generations back.  Now I have a definitive answer, thanks to Y-DNA testing made possible by graciously contributed saliva samples from some direct-lineage male Prokopowicz descendants.  Related or not?  The answer, the process, the details, the implications for future research, I will reveal all in coming weeks.  All except the men's identities, of course, for privacy's sake.

mtDNA testing

After much research into different companies for the Y-DNA tests, I also did a new test of my own maternal mitochondrial DNA.  Do I know more as a result than what I had learned through my original test by Oxford Ancestors nearly a decade ago?  Yes and no.

Subscription databases

Did I ever mention I was weaned on shopping at Filene's Basement and Spag's, or that my parents never bought anything they hadn't researched first in Consumer Reports, or that I feel like the Great Polish Huntress brandishing coupons and bargain-hunting at stores like Marden's and Ocean State Job Lot?  (If you're not a New Englander, you may have to Google these retail references.)  Bottom line, I'm thrifty. 

I have always made heavy use of free resources for genealogy, whether online, at libraries and archives, or at workshops and conferences.  Those resources are vast, but as we know, not everything is online, and not all records are available for free.  In 2010, I subscribed to a few paid database sites.  Were they worth the money?  Will I renew them in 2011?  I'll let you know before they run out this spring.

I ♥ Listservs

I've been active on various genealogy Listservs since 1996 and the era of excruciatingly slow e-mail over 9.6 kb modems.  The lists have been invaluable to my research.  Though I'm still subscribed to over a dozen, a couple in particular have emerged as my clear favorites.  Every year the relationships and the quality of help shared have grown deeper and richer.  If you're doing Polish/Lithuanian research in today's Belarus and/or Lithuania, you may benefit from them too.

Accessible archives

Prospects for obtaining some family records from the Grodno archives—officially, the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Grodno—seem good.  If all goes well, I will have some previously unattainable documents in hand this spring.  Woo-hoo!!!

Meanwhile, back at the microfilm ...

After a lapse of several years, I am again immersed in scrolling through church records microfilmed by LDS (aka the Mormons).  There are new films for the Roman Catholic parishes of the Lida area—pretty exciting!  But I also have reason to re-examine films I used years ago. 

I have a very organized system for working with the baptismal, marriage, and death records I find in the 18th-19th-century European church registers.  However, my research got interrupted a few years ago due to home and family matters and various writing projects.  My notes, index cards, and file folders lay abandoned.  My software got outdated.  Several computers and operating systems later, I'm using a new brand of software to create a new GEDCOM from scratch.  (Thankfully, out in the garage, I still have an old PC with an A drive that reads 3.25-inch disks. I just may need that sometime.)

Finally, Facebook

This has been my major foray into the social media.  I don't expect to be Tweeting my great-great-great-grandmother's baptismal date anytime soon ... but who knows?  What prompted me to join Facebook, what I initially expected, what I've actually gotten from it, and how I hope to use it for genealogy in coming months—as it turns out, these are all very distinct categories in my experience.

Goals for 2011

The final week of 2010 is the obviously perfect time to look ahead.  There is much I hope to accomplish in 2011.  The more I discover about my family's past, the more fascinated I am by the generations that came before me.  More research, more travel, more contact with kindred spirits worldwide lie ahead.  I hope you'll join me in my journey through the past.