Saturday, 29 June 2013

Tending the family tree...

Families, past and present, are interesting concepts. Many of us define ourselves by our nationality, by our culture, by the configuration of our immediate families – number of siblings, birth sequence, presence or absence of extended generations. For me family was a pretty tight little island – two much older half-sisters (one gone now), only one grandparent alive during my very young childhood, parents gone much too early, and then I left America nearly 30 years ago and haven’t been back to visit very often since.

Things I regret: Not asking my parents more questions about their backgrounds – though I have the feeling that there were some topics they really didn’t want to discuss; not staying in better touch with cousins, aunts, uncles – though many of them died when I was quite young. We were not a family of letter writers. Well, I was in my day but with penfriends, not family members. And I’ve moved house so many times in the past 40 years that I’ve discarded or lost papers and mementos along the way.

In 2008 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas Day for my non-UK readers) we were in a cafĂ© in Kenilworth after watching a duck race (that’s another story…) and started talking about family history. My sisters had a different father who I never met – the family story I had heard was that when they were very small he was struck by lightning in a rowboat on a lake at a church picnic. Was this true? I wanted to find out more. I also knew very little about my grandparents and no knowledge of any of my family beyond my parents parents. On New Year’s Day 2009, still in our pyjamas, we sat on the sofa, fired up the laptop and discovered the joys of’s free two week subscription.

Things I learned: It’s good to have an unusual name with multiple spellings; Canadians are mad about genealogy; old census records are a fascinating read; California is much better than other states at putting up its birth and death records (more on this in a moment). When you find an interesting document or bit of data you react just like the people on the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are, except no one is filming you (thank goodness, considering the pyjama aspect) and you’re not famous.

I’d forgotten my father’s mother’s maiden name, but I found a Californian death record of his sister Rita. She had been a country music performer with her husband, who I remembered had an Italian name. The death record pulled all this together and also pointed me to two birth records, a daughter and son. The son was born the same year as me, I’d never heard of him. A search of his name revealed that he was also a musician. I contacted him through his MySpace page and discovered that not only had he played with Johnny Cash for a number of years, he also occasionally toured the UK with a singer, Eve Selis.

Eve visited the UK in 2010, but without her full band. We met her in a little village hall in Tingewick, Buckinghamshire. She is a powerhouse singer, a real force of nature. She is also one of the most outgoing, positive people I’ve met. If you haven’t heard her, you must do so now.

Finally last year in July my cousin Jim was on the tour and one of the gigs was in Oxford, near enough for us to go. And the band had an evening off in Stratford upon Avon, just down the road from us. We joined them for an Indian meal with lots of chat. I brought some papers and info about my father, the uncle Jim never met. Eve took a photo. Having so little close family, I’m not used to looking like other people. The resemblance is striking (see below).

Eve and band were in the UK this month and we got to see them again at The Stables in Milton Keynes (super venue, you must go there sometime). It was great to have the opportunity to chat with Jim again and the band was astounding, as usual.

Things that amaze: One of Alun’s early jobs in the 1980s was with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which took the area from countryside and villages to a modern urban centre. He hadn’t seen it years and we were agog at the huge-ness and “American-ness” of it; the amount of genealogy information available now on the internet – not only was the lightning story that started this search true (on-line newspaper archives, bless), but eventually I was able to go back through even more generations and the number of people I’m related to has increased exponentially. 

Does an interest or ability come from nature or nurture? I would have thought the latter, but my parents were not especially musical (OK, they would burst into song now and then, but neither ever played an instrument or performed), and I've flitted around the edges of the music world most of my life. We people are complex little pumpkins, aren't we?

Eve Selis and me, Tingewick Village Hall 2010
Title song from "Family Tree"

Cousin Jim Soldi and me, July 2012

We were at this gig in  2012 in Oxford...


Karen Rizzo Richards said...

Diana: Great Blog. I know how you feel about the genealogy finds. When I find a new relative on my tree or a record that leads me to someone else I get very excited.

It is also great when you find a distant relative. And sometimes you even get to meet them.

The hardest part for me has been finding all the Italian ancestors. I am second generation American. And way back when it seems people did not talk about their families. I have surprised myself with some of the Italian records I have found and that I can actually read the important parts of the records.

Good luck on your search. It is a fun and never ending project.


Diana Arseneau-Powell said...

Thanks, Karen! I've got the French side of the family back to about 1500, but nearly nothing on the German side. We tend to go in spurts, make some progress and then leave it again for months. When we have the time and money Alun and I plan to drive around the area of France the family came from, the first gentleman to leave went to Canada in about 1540, so if there are any relatives there they will be very distant indeed!