After the funeral Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Eldora, we trekked out to the cemetery, where Mary was to be placed next to her husband Lewis, who died in 2001. It was an overcast day, and the ground was muddy and slushy – not the ideal place for my fancy heels – but we were able to make our way over to the grave for the brief ceremony.
When we returned to the car, Sebastian said, "Mom, now I know why you pursue your family history so urgently. When I went into the cemetery and saw all the Lawlers, I thought, 'my history is here.'"
Sebastian, at age 11, is learning what many people don't discover until they're in their 40s or 50s, or even older. Understanding where you came from helps you understand who you are. And right now, genealogy is hot.
Or so it appears, based on recent TV programming and the explosion of ancestry-related internet databases.
During the Olympics, NBC heavily promoted its new show, Who Do You Think You Are, which has been airing on Friday nights and follows celebrities including Lisa Kudrow and Sarah Jessica Parker as they journey into their genealogical pasts. I haven't yet seen an episode of the show, but I've been getting emails about it from the show's partner, the family history website ancestry.com.
PBS recently had its own family history show, Faces of America, that concluded March 3 (and I referenced in a previous post). In that show, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the genealogy of 12 well-known Americans, including Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep.
There have been more news stories lately about family history, too – think of President Barack Obama, and the discovery that he's distantly related to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Interest in family history isn't a new phenomenon, but there does seem to be a huge increase in the numbers of people researching their backgrounds. The internet has certainly had an impact on this, as it has made genealogical research more accessible. From the comfort of my home in Northfield, Minn., I can type on my laptop and look up my great-great-grandfather's family on the 1860 Illinois census. I can search eBay and find a photo of my great-grandfather in a Montana cowboy band. I can meet people on ancestry.com who share a branch of my family tree, and exchange information, all without having to travel to another state or search through dusty court records.
Is this increased interest in family history a result of baby boomers reaching an age where they've become more introspective? Are other societal factors – years of being at war, or uncertainty about the economic future – fueling a desire to connect to the past, and learn from our ancestors' experiences?
One of my favorite Minnesota journalists, Minnesota Public Radio's Kerri Miller, hosted a show the other day about the genealogy craze. Miller and her Midmorning guests discussed how the internet and DNA testing are helping both amateur and professional genealogists find information that was previously unknown or inaccessible.
I have dabbled in genealogy the past few years, as I've researched the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs. It's easy to get sucked into the challenge of tracing family lines, compiling dates and names and striving to solve mysteries. But the most rewarding part for me is finding and documenting the personal stories that make these people come alive.
I've also been reminded of how important it is to gather the stories of people who are still alive, while you still have the time.
Baby Sebastian with great-grandparents Mary and Lewis Lawler, November 1998
Nineteen years ago, my husband, Steve, had the foresight to sit down with Grandpa and Grandma Lawler, turn on the cassette recorder and ask them questions about what it was like to grow up in rural Iowa. He has about two and a half hours of conversation, which he transferred to CD form. Now that both of his grandparents are gone, it's comforting to know that their stories will be preserved for future generations who will never experience the pleasures of meeting them, or eating a delectable piece of Grandma's pie.