Once, when I was a child, I was flipping through my school yearbooks and noticed people with my last name whom I had never met before.
When I asked my mother about it, she described a split in the family that had happened sometime about a century ago. It was a bit like the Montagues and Capulets — we rarely spoke to one another.
This sparked something in me — I had to learn more. I began researching when I was 15, and while the stories and paper trail are almost nonexistent, I’ve stumbled upon so much more along the way. The family rift has now become only a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes up my family history.
The discoveries I’ve made have been incredible. I am a distant cousin of George Washington. Four of my great-great-great-great grandparents disappeared without a trace. Some of my Gypsy ancestors were chased out of Romania and immigrated to the U.S. My ancestors come from at least a dozen different nationalities and countries.
In a December 2012 article published in The Guardian, Emily Kasriel wrote, “In drawing up my tree, I have found that it is the connecting fibres and portraits of the uncertain or unknown that become the most compelling.”
I have come across so many uncertainties in my family I would have to agree. I have more questions now than I did before I began researching — but I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the fun of it. I never know what I’ll find — or won’t find.
As students, we’re often told these are the years that we will discover who we really are. We study history for a reason — to understand where we came from, to preserve our cultures. We are all diverse and unique, and making sure we don’t lose that piece of ourselves is crucial to our identities.
In addition, our generation is now in charge. The future of our country is beginning to fall onto our shoulders. We have to make sure not only is the future in good hands, but also our pasts.
Sitting down and discussing family history with my relatives brings us closer together. With our world constantly changing, we often have completely different views on a lot of things. But our rich history is something of a common ground, something we share.
With the power of technology, research is easier than ever. Instead of pouring through library archives for hours (which is still a very helpful research strategy), online records are a click away, family trees can easily be created and we can even collaborate with other family historians — who may turn out to be distant relatives.
Technology also has the advantage of being able to preserve history. Every day, every hour, every second, history is lost forever. My great-grandfather’s birth certificate was destroyed in a fire decades ago, so my family does not know his birth year.
Everyone should go out and start researching their heritage. I would recommend those dabbling in genealogy to talk to their relatives. From there, they should look through old newspapers.
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Use online databases such as Ancestry.com. Start building a digital family tree — there are many free and easy programs out there.
It’s important we don’t forget who we are. Failing to preserve our history lets a piece of us die with it. We can learn a lot from the past, and, as students, that should be our first priority.