About a year ago, I began a genealogical quest to find out more about the ancestors on my father’s side of the family. Although an avid genealogist for fifteen years, I spent most of that time concentrating on my maternal lines for my M.F.A. degree thesis, and subsequent book, Three Slovak Women (Gateway Press).
As I started my search, I realized that I had committed what could possibly be the number one sin in genealogy --becoming interested too late (i.e. after the generation who could tell me what I wanted to know had passed away). Well, almost, I thought. There was still my father, who was living with me, and who, at seventy-nine, possessed a sharp memory. I had documents, photographs, etc. but there were many unanswered questions. One winter evening, I asked him about his ancestors in Slovakia. When he replied that he knew nothing, I asked, “Didn’t you ever ask your mother or father about their parents or grandparents?” I was stunned by his reply:
“What do I care about those people? They’re dead. I didn’t know them.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My father “tells it like it is.” No pretense; no apologies. Dad’s response was funny, disappointing, and frustrating all at the same time. With this one simple statement, my father put a serious knot in my perceived “only link” to the Alzo and Fenchak ancestors on my paternal side of the family. Talk about a brick wall! And yet, he was just as philosophical about his own eventual passing.
Since that time, I have started many of my genealogy lectures with my father’s infamous quote. Usually it elicits smiles, nods, and laughter because at one time or another I think many genealogists have experienced a similar lack of interest from family members or relatives. Some people can’t remember; others have a “selective” memory about the past, or refuse to share any information. Finally, there are those like my father--they don’t have the information, and have no interest in their ancestors even if you eventually manage to track them down!
In addition to being a great introduction for lectures, my father’s quote has given me cause for reflection on several occasions. I thought I would share some of these thoughts in this article. Perhaps you will recognize similarities in your own experiences.
Who Cares? There have been previous articles in ADN about what motivates genealogists, what lengths they’ve gone to, and why many are addicted to this “hobby.”
What about those who don’t share the interest? My father may represent the extreme with his “Who Cares?” attitude. Then there’s my husband. He listens to me talk incessantly about the research process, but he knows very little about his own family. He’s curious, but not so much to perform the research himself, so I finally persuaded him to let me investigate his family lines. Even more intriguing is that my husband thinks of genealogy as being “ultimately depressing.” To quote him, “If people today can claim to know so little about their ancestors four or five generations back, won’t the same fate befall us? If so, why strive for anything?”
By his own admission, my husband’s mental outlook could probably provide sufficient material for a week-long psychiatrist’s conference (or at least an episode of Dr. Phil). However, my husband has raised some interesting points. For instance, when do you stop caring about a person in your family tree? You care about your grandparents because either you knew them or at least know about them. But as you go back to your great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, and so on, how much do you really know about them, and how much of a connection can you feel?
So why are some people compelled to find their ancestors, and others have little or no interest at all? Perhaps there are some psychological reasons, which I won’t even attempt to address here. What I do believe is that while I know many “part-time” genealogists, I haven’t come across any “half-hearted” ones. Most of the genealogists I’ve met are very passionate about the search for their ancestors. I also feel certain that there must be some unwritten, but “built-in” precedent for being a genealogist: More often than not, you and only you will be interested in your family history discoveries.
Dealing with Negativity Sometimes it can be challenging to live with someone who has a less than positive attitude about genealogy. However, contact with other genealogists via e-mail, message boards, my ancestry classes, and at conferences, constantly renew my faith in the process and the journey. Overcoming negativity towards the past is one big step in preserving it.
Breaking the Ice So what to do if you encounter someone like my father during the research process? Here are a few tips to help you work through the negativity:
Ask questions about their life instead.
Focus on a topic that the person is interested in. For example, with my father, I often turn the conversation to sports (he was a basketball player) or WWII (he served in the Navy). I discovered my father likes to talk about these two subjects. For women, you could ask about a recipe for a favorite family dish or have her talk about a specific tradition.
Ask about a person they did know. I found my father liked to talk about his father and told me many humorous and interesting stories about my grandfather which stories helped me to get to know him. My grandfather died before I was born, so old photographs and those stories provide the only windows into his life.
Use photographs or family heirlooms (address book, wedding picture, military medal, piece of jewelry, or bible) to initiate the conversation.
I hope to cover some additional tips in a possible future article. Of course, not all of these “ice breakers” will work for everyone. They are just suggestions and much will depend on the person and his/her personality and memories.
Keep Knocking Fortunately, my father’s lack of interest did not deter me. One trait I believe I inherited from the Fenchak side of my family is persistence. (Okay, maybe it’s more like stubbornness.) Whatever you want to call it, I don’t give up easily, and I find this quote from the “Graduation Prayer,” by Andrew Costello, quite inspiring:
“When doors are locked, don’t be scared to knock; if no one answers, come back tomorrow; if doors get slammed in one’s face, try other doors--and never just stand there stuck, staring at a closed door. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, and doors will open.”
I generally try to live my life by this philosophy, and now apply it to my genealogical quests as well. What about you? Next time you encounter a version of “What do I care about those people? They’re dead,” don’t stand there stuck. Keep knocking!
One final note: I wrote this column several months ago. My father passed away on November 27th. And I just want to say to him, “Dad, we do care.”
If you’d like to share your experiences with your less-than-enthusiastic family members, and/or can provide an example of how you dealt with the situation, please e-mail me. Perhaps I will share some additional stories in a future article.
Lisa Alzo is the author of Three Slovak Women (Gateway Press), Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions (Gateway Press), and the recently published Finding Your Slovak Ancestors (Heritage Books), as well as numerous articles for genealogy magazines. Lisa teaches Eastern European, Slovak and Great Lakes Region genealogy classes for MyFamily.com, and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, genealogical and historical societies. She can be reached through: www.lisaalzo.com
Lisa’s Upcoming Classes at Ancestry.com: [certain old links deleted/past dates] --Details and links to upcoming events where Lisa will be speaking can be found at www.lisaalzo.com.
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