A few years into our marriage, I discover online genealogy and open an ancestry.com account. It’s exciting for me, in a nerdy kind of way: I have piles of family history and photographs from my grandmother, and now I am able to start seeing the old documents, solving mysteries.
I tell The Departed about this, and he tells me he’s very interested too. Very interested. He starts building his own tree on an ancestry account we suddenly share, using notes from a website built by a distant cousin. Not only do we share the account, we share a tree, which means I receive endless “hints” from ancestry for all the thousands of people he has added, many of whom seem to be only marginally connected to him.
He spends night after night on ancestry.com, for months on end. I notice that although he has any number of lines that simply stop – he doesn’t know where they go – he never seems able to make progress on them. He likes to talk about his ancestors at great length, but after a while it becomes clear: There’s nothing new here, no progress is being made.
I wonder what on earth he’s doing for all those hours on the computer, but I say nothing.
I spend time on ancestry too, sometimes working on my own tree, sometimes helping friends and others with their own lineages. Helping other people seems to help me get new ideas when I get stuck – and I start meeting people who help me, both online and at the library.
The Departed complains: Help me with my genealogy. You always help other people, but you never help me.
This isn’t precisely accurate. We often discuss genealogy over dinner, to the dismay of The Child. He tells me where he is stuck, and I make suggestions. All my suggestions are met with either an explanation about why they won’t work, or else why the approach that he’s planning actually will.
I stop making suggestions. Instead, I help other people, who say things like Thank You. One woman cried and hugged me when I told her she was eligible to join the DAR and explained it to her. Several people sent me thank you notes in the mail with Starbucks cards inside. I help lots of people, and gratefully receive help from still others.
One day, though, I am stuck on a problem, and bored, and so I start poking around the ancestry tree. I find one of his people’s names, “Harint.” She’s someone’s wife, and when I go look closely at the source of her name – an old census – I can see it’s just poorly indexed. Her name is “Harriet.”
This makes more sense. I fill in the rest of her married census data, and notice that on one of them, her father is living with her and her husband.
I fill in her maiden name, and the data starts to bubble up for Harriet. I am able to track the line back about 50 years, from Oregon to its Pennsylvania origins, locating gravemarkers, death certificates, and the like.
The Departed comes home, and I tell him about this. You wanted my help and I’ve helped you. Here, see, I fixed her name. The indexer just couldn’t read the handwriting and wrote Harint. But it’s Harriet.
It could be Harint, he says. You’re making an assumption.
Harint is not a name, I say, but in any case. I try to tell him all the things I have found by looking a bit more closely; I have a pile of documents and want to show him how neatly it all ties together.
No, he says. It’s not a usual name, but it could be a name. You don’t know that it’s not a name.
Okay, I try, if you look at the other censuses where she’s living with the same husband, you’ll see it says Harriet.
Maybe it does, he says. But one census says one name and another census says another so either one could be right.
I’m tired. This tires me out. I have twenty things that say Harriet, Harriet is a name, and I have a lot of other data I can’t get to – her last name, her father’s name, her death date and gravemarker. I can’t get to any of it because he keeps stopping me to argue this point about “Harint.”
I hand him the pile of papers and say, You’re welcome. I won’t be helping you any more.
You just don’t like it when I challenge you, he says. You think you know everything, and you always have to be right.
I walk away. It’s the only way to end it.