An infection

My sister seems to have the bug. Two cousins are also showing signs. If I were to get in touch with my sister-in-law right now, I’m pretty sure she too would be afflicted by it.

It’s the family history bug, and my sister has it bad. She has moved on from the well-trodden paths, the more illustrious connections, to the lesser known and more obscure. For the first time, our mother’s side of the family is being explored as well. My sister has joined family history societies and taken out subscriptions to genealogy websites. The work of delving, sifting, note-taking and cross-referencing has begun in earnest.

It’s easy now to get started. So much is available online. My sister is trawling through parish registers of marriages, baptisms and deaths, obituaries in local papers, contracts, leases, legal documents of all kinds. All handwritten of course. Yes, it’s easy to get started, but it requires tenacity and an eye for detail to make progress. Hundreds of clues are there to be found. Unlike a treasure hunt though, they lead not to one big horde, but to a myriad of little prizes.

In the last couple of weeks of detective work, nothing too gruesome has been uncovered. But there are unsolved mysteries. There are also so many personal tragedies: an abandoned child, children dying young, mothers dying young too, children being brought up not by parents but by other family members. Why did A leave Monmouthshire for Pembrokeshire? Why did B leave London for Leicester? We may never know. There are brief glimpses of lives abridged by disease, childbirth or war.

Red herrings pop up to confuse the unwary – duplicate names in one family branch, a mistake with a second Christian name or confusion over spellings. Maybe it’s simply an acceptance of multiple versions of the same name. Sometimes a trail, once hot, peters out into a decline in circumstances…poverty, illiteracy and just not somehow mattering enough to leave much of a written mark.

My interest is in the human stories – the past of our ancestors, recorded at a few key moments. While our present is constrained and our future is uncertain, trying to discover some of our past feels meaningful and achievable. So I too am infected with this enthusiasm.

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