Friday, November 15, 2013

Giving Thanks to Family

My family tree photo wall
According to, October is Family History Month.  However, I always associate November with family because Thanksgiving is traditionally when we get together with members of our extended family, re-tell and re-live our favorite old stories and memories, and re-establish all of those enduring family connections.

I have been working on our family tree for many years now.  And by "working on," I mean I have contracted a couple of professional genealogists to do the legwork and search out our family history for me.

To be fair, I am the one who started putting it all together many years prior with my mother, and collected and organized all of the material, so that I would have some accurate information for them to start researching.  I am also the one who documents all of the information they discover into our Family Tree software, distributes tree charts to family members, lets everyone know about any newly uncovered facts of interest, and created family tree albums for my siblings and other family members.

I had toyed with the idea of traveling to Spain myself to research our genealogy.  However, one email exchange with the professional genealogist, and I was pretty much disenchanted with that notion right away.

Seems there's more involved to genealogy research abroad than I ever would have guessed.  Rather than a library database of microfiche or a local government office with standardized hours of operation, many of these records are still kept in their original form in the actual churches and parishes where they were created.

What this means is:
  • There are not necessarily any normal open hours for access; it may be by appointment only, and subject to change at a moment's notice (or whim).
  • The local priest is not compelled nor necessarily under any obligation to accommodate any time that is most convenient for you during your trip.
  • Every individual town has its own local observances and holidays, so the church or office may not even be open when you happen to be in town.
  • There may be only enough room for 2 genealogists to sit at a small table in the corner, so it is definitely first come, first served; once full, no more researchers are allowed in.
  • The records will not be in modern language, but in old-style language (think Olde English, or in my case, Olde Spanish); how well do you trust your second language skills?
  • Some provinces may have their own local language that the records were recorded in (i.e., Catalan or Basque).
  • Some of the priests or record-keepers made mistakes, or the people providing the information to him may not have always had the correct facts, so you will need to be skilled in discerning those errors.
  • Some priests or record-keepers have barely intelligible handwriting, and there are often variations in the way some names are spelled.
  • Centuries-old ink can fade and pages can get torn, also making the entries barely legible.
  • Some of your ancestors may not have known or deliberately lied about their place of origin, birth dates, marriage dates, etc.
  • Some information will need to be cross-checked via siblings or alternate documents (marriage records, christenings or baptisms, etc.), especially when you lose the thread. Knowing what documents may be available, and how and where to find them, is a huge part of the process.
  • Not all of your ancestors will come from the same city, parish, province or even the same country, so hopping around from place to place will be necessary during your research.
  • It will all take much more time than you will have anticipated or planned for.

When it was all taken into consideration, the idea of trying to do the research myself became unrealistic at best, and insurmountable at worst.  For those, and many other reasons, I decided it was best to hire a professional.

At the time, there was huge interest going on with genealogy, and a number of tv shows airing that I was completely intrigued by:  "Who Do You Think You Are," "Genealogy Roadshow," PBS's "Finding Your Roots"and "Faces of America" series, as well as National Geographic's "Genographic Project."  I started googling the Spanish genealogists on these shows, and contacted the one who had researched Martin Sheen, Eva Longoria, and Linda Chavez's Spanish ancestors.  I liked Matthew Hovious right away, was impressed by his background and credentials, and decided to hire him right on the spot.  It is one of the best decisions I ever made.

I provided him with all of the information that I had on my grandparents (birth dates, birth cities, parents' names, etc.), and he was off and running. What I got back was beyond my expectations.

Family tree lineages going back to the early 1500s, knighthoods, scandals, oddities, information on their siblings, and other stories about my ancestors.  I received photographs of some of these records -- ancient documents, with familiar and not-so-familiar names on them -- yet all related to me.  Sometimes I even received addresses or the name of their farm or estate.

Some were rich, some were poor.  It was a story of the rise and fall of fortunes and politics, and how these families came to cross an ocean and come together.  It was like the unfolding of a novel, with a myriad of characters who told the tale of how we came to be.  Every new chapter revealed was absolutely fascinating!

One branch of the family had eluded me, because there were several generations born in Cuba, and those records were nearly impossible to access.  Nearly, but not completely.  It took some digging and persistence, but I was finally able to make the right contact.  It was a case of "someone who knows someone who knows someone who might have access to these records and might travel to Cuba every now and then."  As close to cloak-and-dagger as one can get when trying to get information out of a country that is basically under lockdown.

But I was able to verify some of the information this "friend of a friend of a friend" was able to extract, and we were on our way.  The final branch of the tree was being revealed, and we have a lead ... back to Spain, and back to Matthew to continue the search now.

Our Family Tree Chart
And so, another passion is pursued and realized.  We have a family history that spans centuries, and a richer sense of our background than we ever would have dreamed.  We have a family history legacy to pass down to all the future generations to come.  I only wish my father could have seen it ... he would have been so thrilled, intrigued and fascinated with it all.  (I'm sure he's keeping tabs.)

I might be almost finished.  Maybe.  But probably not.  I imagine that I will always be looking for one more connection, one more lead, one more leaf hint ... and will probably continue the search for the rest of my life.  Why not?  The internet is young yet, and you never know what new databases and records will come online any day now.

If family is the most important thing, then it is all worth it.  This is my gift to my family, and my way of honoring and giving thanks to all who came before us.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!

No comments:

Post a Comment