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.