Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Taking Risks

Talk to any genealogist, and they likely have a bucket list. That list of impossible dreams they hope to accomplish someday, provided they can ever get their act together enough to achieve the lofty goals they have set for themselves. The research trips they may never be able to afford. The compendium of knowledge they may not ever write. The unsolved mysteries they hope to put their names on as "the one who figured it all out." The innermost, heartfelt wishes of one introvert's strange little heart.

At the very top of my list was a single item: find my grandmother's birth father, and share that discovery with her while I still have the chance.

The possibility that I might be able to do this was why I took my DNA test years ago. It was the impetus behind giving my mother a test for Christmas last year. I've dedicated years of my life, literally hundreds of hours to research and training classes, trying to obtain the proficiency to make my goal even remotely realistic. I've spent countless hours combing through lists of cousin matches, carefully documenting each line of my family tree. And the waiting! The patience that goes into simply waiting for the right person to come along.

But I did it. I finally did it! I found him. And I've never been more proud of myself, and every person along the way who made this all possible. Every person in the genealogical community who has ever taught me, helped me, or invested in me. I couldn't have done this without all of you.

To talk about how it all happened, it probably helps to begin the story by telling you about Nancy. Nancy is the world's best DNA cousin match. She has a fully-documented public tree. She answered the message I sent her almost immediately. And she dug in with both hands to help me find the person I was looking for. I wouldn't be telling you this story right now if it wasn't for her.

Her tree was truly fabulous, and the records she had attached to it were the most extensive I'd ever seen in a tree that wasn't mine. Because she'd had multiple people tested, she approximated where in her tree we needed to start looking. Within a day or two of writing back and forth, I was combing through every inch of those lines. And the more I worked with the surnames I was seeing, the more other cousin matches began to appear.

In less than a week, I had the answer. The name from my grandmother's birth certificate was, in fact, real. Horribly misspelled, and the age of the man in question was very wrong. But there was no mistaking him. Immediately, I pulled his name up on a census record and just stared at it in disbelief.

Then I pulled up his obituary. It had a picture, so I could see his face. All the work I'd ever put into this weird hobby of mine had directly led to this. This moment I never thought would happen, and I will never forget for as long as I live.

I called my mom to tell her the news. She was still figuring out how to log into the Ancestry app on her phone when I came to her with the answer.

"You told me to take the test," she said in disbelief. "You didn't say it was actually going to work!"

It's one thing to be able to put together a discovery from the privacy of your own couch. It's another thing to reach out to someone else's family with what you've found. From the obituary, I knew my grandmother had some half siblings. I knew roughly where they lived. So I took a wild stab in the dark and checked the phone book. Sure enough, I had addresses for all three of her half siblings.

The secret to having nerve is to act without thinking, which usually means taking a series of actions before your brain can get you to stop. So without thinking, I wrote three letters--front and back of a single handwritten page. I put them in an envelope, one for each sibling. I was putting stamps on them by the time my brain managed to catch up to me.

I don't know how long I sat at my dining room table, staring at the three envelopes in my hand. What were the consequences of what I was about to do? What impact would these letters have on the people I was about to send them to? Would they be excited? Devastated? Angry? Suspicious? What if I was on the verge of ruining someone's life? What if I got no answer? Was I going to be okay living with whatever reaction I was going to get?

This post, as much as it's about finding this connection, is even more about this single decision. I've come to refer to it in my own mind as a Hail Mary pass--the impossible shot. The decision to do something that you can never take back, to put yourself out there, to believe in a stranger, to take a risk for the sake of a new discovery. No amount of research, education, or training can tell you what the right thing to do is in that moment. And finding the courage to act, when every risk-averse part of your brain is screaming out for you to stop, is a weird kind of skill all its own.

And I got lucky. The people on the other end of my Hail Mary pass were delighted to reach out and talk to me. They were eager to share stories, photos, documents, and memories of the people who were only names to me in the beginning. They're becoming so much more than that now, and building this sense of kinship with new family is such a privilege. And of course, they had answers to questions and mysteries I was never going to solve without them. My only hope is to use what they've shared with me to give something as precious back to them as what they've given to me.

I still have a lot of work to do, forming new connections, doing loads of new research, sharing what I've found with families old and new. I don't know when I'll be back with more stories from this newest chapter in my genealogy journey. I can't wait to share what I'm finding as I uncover my Italian immigrant roots, and the adventures I'm having trying to work my way back into Italy.

If your family is from Naples, hit me up! I have questions!

But for anyone out there who is wondering whether the risks in genealogy are worth taking, especially in the era of DNA when what we have to discover can be so explosive, I don't have the answers. And there are all kinds of reasons to hesitate and re-think the risks we take in genealogy.

I just know that without risk, there's no chance of success or connection. And some dreams are incompatible with giving into any kind of fear.