My first encounter with genealogy when I was a child was, of course, likely in elementary school, where I’m sure I was asked at some point to construct a rudimentary family tree—a tree that was likely very simple and extended only as far back as my grandparents and perhaps their siblings. But my first distinct memory of trying to create a family tree had nothing to do my own family tree.
My mother was at that time a literature professor, so our house was filled with books, which I would regularly poach from the shelves. I remember that around the age of ten or so I started reading Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, which provides a number of trees tracing the descent of Greek gods and heroes. I tried to create my own version combining all of the separate trees into one overall tree, but I never seemed to fit all of the pieces together.
At some point as what we would now call a “tween,” I also became obsessed with name etymology and history. I must have startled my parents when I purchased a baby name book. For some reason, I started constructing and charting imaginary genealogies using the names in the book. I would spend hours and hours doing nothing but listing these fictional lines of descent.
Later, my interest morphed into reading particularly novels that traced family descent, such as Gabriel García Márquez’s warped family tree One Hundred Years of Solitude or Toni Morrison’s magical family history in Song of Solomon (also both found on my parents’ book shelves). For many years to come, my interest in genealogy was subsumed within my interest in literature, which I studied in college and graduate school.
Looking back on it now, I wonder why I found these fictional genealogies so fascinating, and I think it was likely because of the limitations of my family’s own genealogical knowledge. My grandparents were born in this country, but their parents were all born in Eastern Europe. We were fortunate as a family to have come to the United States early, but as a result, a lot of ties were lost, even among extended family members who had all come over and ended up in different places across the United States: New York, of course, but also Colorado—where my grandmother, mother, and I were all born–and Michigan, among others. Many branches ended up in countries across the globe, from Mexico to South Africa to Israel.
My parents told me about all of my grandparents’ siblings and their families, of course, but beyond that their knowledge was sketchy, and among the previous generation I think there was a reluctance to talk much about family history that extended back to Europe before World War II because so many people had been lost. I’m sure my grandparents were aware of the family history, but my parents only vaguely so, and no one really discussed it.
Today, my grandparents are all deceased, and I find that I’ve largely lost a valuable oral tradition that could have filled in many of the gaps I’m now facing. Luckily, some of my older cousins have done much of the work to trace back particular lines—and impressively so, given that they completed the work back in the 1990s, before information was so accessible online. The Katz/Kates line is well fleshed out for several generations thanks to my cousin Barbara, as is the Zagon line, thanks to my cousins Bob and Mindy.
As for the other lines, I’m left to try to piece it together with the help of family members, such as my great-aunt Edy, or through genealogical research and collaboration with total strangers, who may also be distant relatives. I’m even delving into the new frontier in genealogical research, genetic genealogy.
Each step raises at least as many new questions as it answers. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some of the methods that I’ve found most helpful.