1. You travel in the footsteps of your ancestors.
French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote, “Traveling is almost like talking with those of other centuries.”
When you travel overseas to walk the same ground as your ancestors, you recreate their experiences in your mind, tuning in to the faint echoes of the past that surround you. Retracing their footsteps, you see where they lived and worked and how they made ends meet. You imagine the conversations of their daily lives. You begin to understand something significant about their homeland and culture and how you are rooted.
2. You connect with history and family.
You discover connections with historical figures and events that put your ancestors’ lives in context. You connect with relatives back in time. You see your grandfather as a young man on a World War I record. You see your grandmother as a young girl on an immigration ship roster sailing two years after the Titanic. You find your grandparents as a young couple on a census record with young children, some of whom you know never lived to the next census.
3. You find some missing pieces to your family’s puzzle.
Even for the professional sleuth, hunting for your forebears can be a frustrating, yet rewarding experience. Your research might lead you to conclude no one in your family did anything noteworthy. At some point you begin to wonder if your ancestors were in a witness protection program. Hopefully, the critical link in your family tree is not named Smith, or as in my case, your ancestors knew only two names and used them over and over again. Slugging through online databases for Tom and John Casey made me cross-eyed until the heavens opened and the angels sang when I found the rights birth records.
You know you’ve gone too far when (1) You’d rather go to a cemetery than a movie theater; (2) You have more photos of dead relatives than living ones; (3) You know every librarian in your state by name; and (4) You pack a tape recorder with extra batteries for the family reunion.
Without doubt, finding those pesky skeletons in your family’s closet is the most exciting part of the hunt. We’re not all from noble birth, but you can bet each family will have its share of ladies of the evening or thieves. Who cares if your great grandmother was a descendant of King Henry VIII? I’d rather hear the backstory about your ancestor’s lineage to Mary Boleyn, his mistress and sister to Queen Anne.
4. You discover continuities in experiences and relationships.
Assembling pieces of your family’s puzzle can lead to insights that link your ancestors together. You discover similarities between family member traits and characteristics that persevere through time. Or you may find common relationships that parallel your own life. Generations of priests on my father’s side, including the Cardinal, Archbishop of New York, helped explain my family’s inordinate obsession with the Catholic Church. Maybe you’ll find some fun facts, like four generations on your mom’s side all named their dogs “Buddy” just like you did. Or six generations on your Dad’s side had an affinity for playing the piano just like you. It’s all part of piecing your family’s story together.
5. You connect with new relatives.
Even if your family tree needs pruning, you may be pleasantly surprised to connect with living relatives you never knew you had. As writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” It’s that feeling of awe and wonder as you look into the eyes of a stranger and intuitively know he or she is your kin. Sometimes when you look for your own answers to the family tree, you discover someone has been searching for you.
6. You honor your ancestors by preserving traditions and knowledge of where you are from.
You honor your ancestors who came before you when you pass on admiration of your family’s history to your children. You gather newspaper stories about your family and old letters from family members. You listen to old stories told by your elders and write these down. You find birth, marriage, church, military and census records of your ancestors and share these with your children. You add your own story to the family tree and leave behind a little something of yourself.
7. You are inspired to make something great of your life.
As part of learning about your relatives, you reflect on their personal relationships and experiences, and on their lives and their deaths. You see how far they traveled for a better life. You explore histories of relationships defined through blood and roots. With an appreciation for the fleeting of time, you value your relationships and don’t take anything for granted. You are motivated from their struggles and achievements to live your best life and be the best you can be.