I’m finding that traipsing through my family tree is becoming more of a bittersweet and lonely experience for me. I’ve built this lovely rich, deep family tree filled with all these amazing people who overcame extreme hardships and tribulations and to know their blood flows through my veins is utterly amazing. However, my own immediate family has failed to understand why I find it so important to trace and document the past, particularly ours. They don’t even really attempt to feign interest or care to share in the excitement of my discoveries. It really hit me hard the other day while standing in the dilapidated old Woodhull cemetery when I was in near despair as a fallen tree menacingly loomed precariously close to taking out some of the stones below. For some weeks since, I’ve been melancholy as I realized there isn’t anyone in my real life to share these experiences and stories with really. Sure, my husband will go scrub moldy old headstones with me and tolerates my excited ramblings when I discover something interesting but I know he has no real enthusiasm for genealogy or history.
A few nights ago, I was telling my daughter how overjoyed I was since I had volunteered my time to help identify the people/soldiers buried at the Fishkill Supply Depot and that I’d helped Fort Montgomery with a soldier’s identification, which I shared here a few days ago. My excitement fell on deaf ears and she was just so adamant that I should spent more time talking to the living, as opposed to proverbially digging through graves. I started to explain how all those people who are buried there contributed to our nation’s freedom and they deserve to be recognized for it and identified properly, as any soldier (or person, for that matter) does. How many families didn’t received notice of death? How many never made it home and are lying there with no stone, no identity, no nothing? My heartbreaking explanation didn’t seem to sway her one iota.
Even when my son was away in Georgia at basic training, when he was struggling and having a difficult time of it, I sent him a letter I thought would be motivational, telling him how he came from a long line of military men who found the fortitude to overcome some of the hardest, most hideous circumstances and that he could too if he’d just pull himself up the by the bootstraps (as my dad is fond of saying) and get focused on the task at hand. I described harrowing tales of our grandfather in the Civil War and even my father’s horrendous tours in Vietnam but those too, just seemed to fall short of being as inspirational as I’d hoped it would be for him. I just wanted him to find something of himself in the stories of our forefathers but my hopes were for naught.
For me, I get really excited when I find discoveries in their lives that mirror my own. As I was scrubbing some Woodhull headstones, I realized just how many of them were lawyers and/or judges during their lifetime. I just stood there and had to grin, remembering how for so long my dream was to go to law school, get a secondary in French and go work at the United Nations. Did that desire to go into law come from my Woodhull DNA? Did my passionate zeal of arguing for the underdog come from them too? I’d like to think so….
As I climb through these family roots, I wonder if other family researchers have similar feelings. It’s a bit surreal to have all these people on my tree that I’ve never met and that lived in some cases 200+ years ago but yet, I feel closer to them than the majority of my own living relatives. How can I find such strength and inspiration in them when I can’t find it in the present? I just look at these people’s lives and I wonder how they did it – the mind boggles! I mean, we ask our son to take out the trash (which is right outside his bedroom door) and you’d think we were asking him to go on some epic journey akin to the Iliad. These people traversed over mountains and rivers in horse drawn carts, gave birth to babies in fields and on trails to their new homes, men walked to the South and back during the war, plowed massive amounts of acres by hand sun up to sun down but taking out the garbage is much too much of a task for these younger generations.
Maybe it’s just that I can’t find anyone inspirational in the present. I am hard pressed to find someone I feel is worthy enough to look up to, admire or hope to emulate. One look at my news feed confirms this thought. For me, those who lie in their graves have far more character and moxie than a vapid celebrity. It seems anyone with a YouTube channel or Instagram account can be “famous” if you’re lucky enough (though not always for the right reasons). However, when I look at muster rolls and see men who were taken prisoner, stuffed into dank, diseased prison ships and somehow survived after multiple years of malnutrition and mistreatment, I am rightfully impressed. I think about General Nathaniel Woodhull, bravely defying a British solider by refusing to say “God save the King!” even though he likely realized that he would perish for it… well, that to me is admirable by all accounts. I think about the pioneers in my family who trekked across the country, leaving safety/security behind and forging into the West, the unknown be damned. I just don’t see that same fearless attitude in people today…
Where did it go? Did it die out with technology and modernization? Were all those strong characteristics and admirable traits bred out of us through the years and we’ve become “soft” as a whole? These are things that plague my thoughts as I climb through my tree. As despaired and hopelessly alone as I feel sometimes as I work through my roots, I’ve come to realize that I’m not entirely bereft as I’ve feared. If anything, it has made me appreciate that my ancestors have been and are with me still, now and always.