How Genealogy Changed My Perceptions

As anyone who has read my blog knows, I have disappointment and anger toward my mother, which I have worked to put into perspective.  Right now a large number of females reading this are shaking their heads in agreement from similar experiences.

But I am fortunate.  It took a horrific event to help my mother and me have a relationship. No one should have to suffer the way she suffered.  But one good thing that came out of it was emotional healing for us.

When I was 21, my mother had massive strokes from which she never fully recovered. She had double vision and had to have a patch over one eye except when she slept. Her face had fallen on one side and she could only drink liquids through a straw.  She could not walk unassisted except at home and still used a walker and then a wheelchair.  She was depressed and embarrassed.  She would say she wanted to die.

I stopped hating her.  I still hate many of the things that she did, or allowed to happen, but her strokes made me grow up.  Instead of being a whiny little girl in a young adult’s body, I started to get to know my mother.  She was definitely different as her mind had been affected.  And her long-term memory was better than short-term.

My mom in the late 1930s, early 1940s.

My mom in the late 1930s, early 1940s.

Most of all, due I think, to the part of her brain that was destroyed, she had no desire for alcohol.

For the first time in my life, my mother didn’t get drunk.

From 1975 until her death in 1994, I forged a relationship with my mother.  I was able to forgive her for most things and most importantly, to realize that she was doing her absolute best.  We never had serious talks about the past.  I don’t think she could mentally do that.  But through stories and through physically helping her deal with her disabilities, little by little I changed.

But it took my genealogy to put our relationship, and my parents’ relationship, in some perspective.

Cemetery at West Point, NY, where my grandfather, father and mother are buried.

Cemetery at West Point, NY, where my grandfather, father and mother are buried.

I’ve done AncestryDNA and have my family tree done on FamilyTreeNow (which is free, by the way).  I’ve worked on our family’s genealogy on and off for a couple of years.  I’m now moving everything over to seems to have bought out, or at least cornered the market, on many of the documents needed to prove lineage.

And that has been transforming for me.  Have any of you worked on your genealogy or seen any of the old documents?

I weep.

Seeing scanned copies of the original census of where my great-grandparents were living in 1875 makes me emotional.  Not a dry report.  Details of where they lived, with whom they lived and what they were doing.  Making them come alive

Seeing the German birth record of my 2nd great-grandfather who was born on 21 Jan 1818 in Recklinhausen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany amazes me.  And then I wonder why my grandfather, my mother’s father, on census records stated his father was born in Germany, which he was, and then changed it in 1925 to say his father was born in Holland.  It shocks me.

We were always told that this side of the family is from the Netherlands.  Did he change because Germany was our enemy in WWI?  How did this affect my mother growing up? My grandfather’s father immigrated here at the end of the 19th century.  Why the need for subterfuge?

My maternal grandmother’s family came here from England in the early 1600’s.  Seeing these photos and documents and seeing that I am from real people, with real lives and real occupations, not just “ancestors” has changed the way I view my parents.  And now I can teach my children that they are part of this huge history of immigration, love, life and death.

Reuben and Mary Russell Atwater. my 7th Great-Grandparents

Reuben and Mary Russell Atwater. my 7th Great-Grandparents

My mother’s and my relationship is but a tiny part of this long line, the seeds of which go back so many, many generations.

It is humbling.

About Barb Knowles

The things that are important to me are family, friends, teaching, writing, languages and using my sense of humor to navigate this crazy world. Please join me on this blogging adventure...
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15 Responses to How Genealogy Changed My Perceptions

  1. Bea dM says:

    thanks for sharing. Very useful to remind ourselves that in the end, we’re all part of “the huge history of immigration”…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Almost Iowa says:

    My wife has put a lot of work into her ancestry. I am amazed when I read her stories of her ancestors who built a soddy a few miles from her and buried their babies in the snow until the thaw allowed them to dig proper graves.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ann Coleman says:

    I love that you are able to separate your feelings for your mother from you feelings for some of the things your mother did when you were a child. It’s hard to do that, but I think it’s an essential part of becoming and an emotionally healthy adult. And you know, I’ve never been that interested in genealogy, but after reading what you wrote about it, and just coming home from my book club where several people were talking about tracing their ancestors, I’m starting to get interested! Knowing we came from a long line of people who had their own hopes, struggles, and lives is indeed humbling. Terrific post, Barb!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Thanks, Ann! I’m getting very frustrated with my father’s paternal side with the information, not with them personally, lol. I’ve been fortunate in that one strand of my family (my mother’s direct line) were famous. So that has been easy to follow and their is some information out there. My father’s paternal side seems to have magically appeared here in the 1800s from Ireland and maybe England. I can’t find info, manifests, immigration records or anything from them. Overall, fills in gaps, but it’s elusive. The puzzle and hunt are part of the attraction, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So inspiring Barb and especially timely in light of this past Sunday’s Gospel message, love your neighbor as yourself theme. My sister and aunt have done quite a bit of family history. I know where in Ireland many of my great grandparents come from and have even visited some of those places. Learning about the challenges they endured and overcame is indeed humbling. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting on this, Suzanne. I’m interested in how you found out where in Ireland your family is from. On Census forms they write “Ireland” and I haven’t found counties. I’ve been looking on and off for a couple of years. My paternal great-grandfather was supposedly born aboard the ship. His birthplace is written as NY, but that’s what they did for newborns. They assigned place of birth as point of disembarkation. I haven’t found any manifests with their names. Although James William Harvey, William James Harvey and Mary Harvey must be the most common names on 2 continents, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. momteachdream says:

    “From 1975 until her death in 1994, I forged a relationship with my mother. I was able to forgive her for most things and most importantly, to realize that she was doing her absolute best.” – This line is something that I have discussed in depth with my family. I have often thought about writing about it and now I truly plan to do it. I think that we may want more from people, but often times what we want is beyond their ability! I know this was not the main focus of the post, but this truly resonates with me. Thank Barb!! You rock!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Thank you! I tried writing a memoir last summer and it became “I hate my mother.” That is not what I want at all, so I am truly trying to get perspective. I did feel blessed that I had that time with her. She was not able to see that our relationship changed, but I don’t think she was aware of who I really was before her strokes. Peeling back the layers of the onion. Thank you for your support!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My husband got right into s few years ago the things he uncovered and particularly the documentation was amazing. For a while there we were side tracking to cemetaries every time we went away and hunting down headstones. It really does bring home that we are temporary expendable and incredibly fragile beings. Each day is precious. Lovely post Barb, really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

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