My Grandfather, Genealogy and Me

I started doing family history when I was 12 years old.  My grandfather had just retired after 40 years of working in a factory and one of his retirement hobbies was genealogy.  I always loved history–and I loved my grandfather–so it was a natural fit for us to do it together.

I’ll never forget going to a genealogy conference in a crowded hotel ballroom.  I had to be the only person there under 30, and one of only a handful under 60.  But we had fun.  We listened to the speakers, perused the book tables, grabbed all the free forms and other free literature that we could and talked about how we could learn more about our family.

My grandfather is of German descent, and if there’s one trait he inherited from his German heritage, it was an eye for detail.  He was a toolmaker and used a micrometer his whole life.  He measured many times before cutting and measured to the umpteenth decimal point–to get it just right.  In his genealogy he kept great records, carefully written and filed, which is one of the absolute essentials of doing genealogy well.

I remember a few road trips to cemeteries, a few days pursuing leads in libraries and courthouses, but mostly I remember sitting around his house, looking at old family things, writing down stories and building files full of the details of our family.

My grandfather was always interested in family history.  He sent me a few things in the mail while I was in college–written in his tiny, meticulous handwriting.  We’d talk about it from time to time.  But he moved on to other retirement hobbies–like restoring his 1929 Model A Ford–and I moved on to being a teenager, then a college student, then a graduate student, then a husband and father.

Doing family history comes and goes in my life.  For a while it will be intense, consuming hours and hours every week, spawning road trips to cemeteries, libraries and historical sites.  Then it will go down to a simmer.  But it’s always there.

Often when I’m working on some lead I have on an ancestor I haven’t yet figured out, or sitting in a library looking at census records, or wandering around a cemetery trying to find an elusive headstone, I’ll think of my grandfather.

He died in 2005, and I still miss him very much.  I wish he was here to see the things I’ve found out about his ancestors (“his people” as he would call them).  I wish he could have walked the cemetery in Cincinnati last year when I was looking for his great-grandfather’s grave.  I wish he could celebrate with me the little victories that happen every once in a while when you do genealogy.

But I know he had to go.  The last years of his life he had Alzheimer’s and he could barely hold on to who I was, let alone worry about his second cousin, twice-removed.  I can’t imagine how hard that was for a man who loved details.

I love genealogy.  I love it for the details, for the stories, for the real people whose DNA I share who I get to meet along the way.  And I love it because it’s one way I keep a little connection with my grandfather.

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16 Responses to My Grandfather, Genealogy and Me

  1. mirroredImages says:

    Kevin- this is beautiful! it is such a tribute to your grandfather and it does honor to his memory and the legacy you keep alive in your pursuit of your family details. I love how warm and personal the writing is. The second-to-last paragraph is particularly poignant and memorable. I’m so glad you’ve started this blog and I hope you keep it up as a way to express the joy and the discoveries you encounter as you excavate the past. Yay!

  2. Adam Squier says:

    What a great first post. I’m looking forward to reading your blog. Your writing style is a bit different than Julia’s (yes, I’m a blog-stalker). Nice to see the little smiley face at the bottom.

    • Thanks, Adam. I have no idea what the little smiley face means or where it came from. I’m still figuring out this whole blogging thing. Julia, on the other hand, is an old pro. I’m glad you can see the difference in our writing styles–sometimes I think people wonder if Julia does all my writing for me…when it’s good.

  3. Pingback: The Family Historian | Arbor Familiae

  4. Jeremiah says:

    Now and then I’m tempted to try personal genealogy, but I go back two generations and suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of alienation. Who are these people? It’s as if I suddenly have less in common with my ancestors than I do with any public stranger. Add a bit of laziness to that and … I give up.

    It’s good to see that you’re not a misguided crank intent on proving his lineage in some romanticized Russian monarchy. The art of genealogy should belong to those blessed with a careful, forgiving, and patient spirit. Your’s is the good work.

    • Thanks for your kind comments. I think part of what sustains my interest in genealogy (even though I, too, am susceptible to laziness) is my interest in history. Even if I don’t feel an intimate connection to the people of my past, I have a deep respect for history. Finding connections between my ancestors and history makes it all the more interesting.

  5. Kevin, you are amazing. I wish I had an ounce of the degree of history about my family that you have about your family. The stories are wonderful. I’ve spent a week or so here and there trying to unearth details about my family, but never to the extent that you do, and your grandfather did. Your relationship was a treasure, as are family histories. I’m inspired to start doing some more sleuthing about mine and my husband’s for our sons and future generations. In fact, when I started my blog, much of it was about planning a trip to Siracusa to see the land of my husband’s grandparents and ancestors. That’s how Charles and I got connected. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope you do some looking into your own family history. There are so many stories to be told. So many interesting people, places and happenings. And it’s really not all that hard, especially in today’s interconnected world. Often a little effort will lead you to someone who has done much of the work already and is more than happy to share.

      If you ever need any help or advice, or just want to be pointed in the right direction as you begin your search, drop me an email at

      • Thanks so much, Kevin. You might just get an email from me when I can get back to it! I’ve used and have been amazed at the documentation available there. If my husband and I can actually get to Sicily, I really, really, really want to know as many details about his family as possible, based on another experience …

        My ancestors are from Norway. My husband and I had the good fortune to vacation there one time with our boys and I feel like we got so close and yet so far to the farm area of the great-grandparents. Unfortunately, my aunts had no idea about the exact spot and I just couldn’t narrow it down. So sad. I don’t understand how families can let those details slip away.

        So impressed by your work and stories!

  6. Hello, I came to your blog from a comment you left on Priya’s most recent post at Partial View. You sounded smart, and so I wanted to click over!

    I believe that every family needs a historian. I read through your post on Columbus Day and marveled at your eye for detail — you definitely inherited that from your grandfather. And it’s a wonderful trait.

    I love how you wrote about your grandfather. The micrometer, the measuring and the impact he had on your life. What a treasure. I would love to read more about your days with him.

    My grandmother, who lived with my family, came over from Poland to Ellis Island in the early 1900s. She, too, referred to a person’s family as their “people.” When I first started talking to her about the young man who would one day become my husband, she was so keen to know if “his people” were any good. I’d met his parents, but failed at that time to recognize the import of her line of questioning.

    I’ve always wanted to know more about my own history, and am thrilled that you can count yours back so many generations. What a gift. And what a lot of work you and your grandfather must have contributed. For me, my Nana’s history will forever be a mystery. She passed on in 2001, and we never knew even how old she was, officially. We took guesses, comments she remembered from an aunt, feeling like she was “at least as old” as her husband, but we never knew. The church where the records were kept in Poland burned down. A school that had some family records in Maine burned down. And so, I will always wonder.

    Glad I came across your blog, and I look forward to reading more.

    • Thanks for reading my blog and for the very generous compliments.

      As for the mystery of your family history, I always see those types of dead ends as a challenge. I have several dead ends in my family tree, where the trail has gone quite cold. But I still hold out hope that someday, somehow, some distant relative will show up online (or maybe even at my doorstep?) with the key to the puzzle. It’s actually already happened to me in a couple of cases. So don’t give up yet.

      My grasp of details is something I constantly battle with. Like most things in life, having an orientation toward detail can be both a blessing and a curse. I find it makes my writing more stilted and it drives me to shove too much information into too small of places. But that’s one reason I write: to continue the battle with my style, to hopefully refine it to a point where it’s more readable and more enjoyable to read.

      Anyway, thanks so much for reading, appreciating and commenting.

      And, by the way, I loved your recent post:

  7. Lynn Owens says:

    I know exactly how you feel about doing your family research. As I have reviewed some of this with my family more interest has been kindled. Sometimes it comes in tiny bits. I strongly feel that families should be writing all the time about their families and what history they know. So much of what I really could use now to find previous generations is lost forever… We have Howells, Crossgrove’s, (Marie Feree descendents), with many missing gaps!! Good luck in the future.

  8. Pingback: Kissing Cousins | Arbor Familiae

  9. Sharon says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Love the post about your grandfather and how you began researching your family because of him and his genealogy hobby. My grandfather was interested in his family history, too; and as I child, I asked questions, which he answered in nice letters and later wrote a bit of his memoirs, at my urging.

    I’ve found so many wonderful ancestors in his and my grandmother’s families and, like you, wish that my grandfather was still alive to be thrilled by all the fantastic stories I’ve discovered. With each discovery, I think about him with a little twinge of regret that he died before the internet and genealogy research became common. I’m so grateful to him for indulging my questions and planting the seeds that grew into an obsession and a joy.

    Enjoyed your post about discovering that you and your wife are distant cousins and reading your interesting stories. You’re a lovely couple, and your discovery is one of the many joys of doing our family research.

    Warm Regards,

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