Nothing, and I mean nothing, puts people to sleep faster than talking about the most boring of my boring hobbies: genealogy. Of the nearly 500 people in my family tree, only two of us actually give a hoot about our genealogy – me and my cousin Dianne. Doing the math, this tells me for every one of you that’s still reading, about 249 or so have gone back to reading their Facebook feeds.
They don’t know what they’re missing. Digging into the past is awesome. You see, our past is a puzzle.
Why care about piecing together a list of dead people’s names? Because each person from the past, just like people today, is not just a name, but a complex and fascinating human being. They were once filled with life, ambition, greed, lust, righteousness, pride, etc. – they had both good and evil in their hearts. They got married and divorced, had kids or didn’t, fought in wars, moved to new countries legally and otherwise, did dumb things, had careers, etc. They were real, which makes them interesting.
And best of all, each person from our past is somehow a small part of who we are today. A family resemblance. A common occupation. Our current geography.
So here’s a bird’s-eye view of my puzzle. You can also view my full family tree on ancestry.com by clicking here.
I’ve got all the major players in there. You can see all of the great-grandparents, and I’ve even figured out who almost all of their parents were.
Great grandparents are cool because if you’re like me, you didn’t know them, or you only knew them for a very short time.
Some of the great grandparents are mysterious. My Italian-born Demma ancestors couldn’t read or write, and they left the near-lawless land of nineteenth-century Calabria, which means the records are lousy. Much of their story is lost to time. Why did they come here? What were they like? To fill in some of the blanks for myself, I wrote this two-part short story – part 1 and part 2 – a historically accurate, but fictional account of my great grandpa Leonardo Demma’s emigration from Italy.
For other great grandparents, the stories are a little clearer. My parents remember some of their grandparents with fondness, so their memory lives on with a certain reverence.
Like these lovely ladies, my first, second, and third great grandmothers. The little baby is my mother’s mother’s mother. This is the oldest photo I have in my tree.
And here’s my handsome great-grandfather Anthony Rosati.
Here’s my great-grandfather Norman Stamboly, the proud patriarch in the middle, with his family. Norman was a Greek-Orthodox Christian who left Syria in the early twentieth century. I think that’s my grandfather Billy all the way to the left in the second row.
Then there is my grandparent’s generation – the Great Depression/WW2 generation. In my tree, that’s people born between 1890 and 1920 plus or minus a decade. In most cases, these were the first American-born people of their respective tree branches. Some are still alive, or just recently passed, so the stories are still first or second-hand.
Here’s my favorite picture of my grandfather Nick taken in Hawaii during WWII. I wrote this short story about his time in the war after seeing the picture.
Here’s my other grandpa, Billy Stamboly, who is still alive and well in Utica, N.Y. I wrote this post, one of my first, about the time I spent at his grocery store when I was a little boy.
Then there’s the touching real life stories about more distant relatives. For example, I found about my grand-uncle Samuel “Sammy Lou” Demma, the first American-born Demma in my lineage. He was a well-known local musician who was fondly remembered by his nieces (who I found through ancestry.com) 60 years after his death for being kind to them and buying them pretty dresses. The photo below was taken around the time he enlisted in WW2 at the age of 40!
And sometimes, if you get lucky, you can occasionally strike ancestry gold, like I did in this snippet from Kelly’s tree below. As it turns out, one of Kelly’s very very distant cousins is a pro genealogist. He traced Kelly’s bloodline all the way back to sixteenth-century France. We now know who Kelly’s twelfth great-grandfather is! Now, if that doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will.
And genealogy sometimes means connecting with the living! Just last week my second cousin found my tree on ancestry.com. After a few quick emails, I was able to connect her with her long-lost first cousin. It was heart-warming to see them reminisce about their parents and common grandparents, and I got to learn a bit more about our common ancestors (this exchange was my inspiration to write this post and get back into the tree business).
So if you made it this far, maybe you have some real interest in genealogy. If your family is big enough, someone, whether you know it or not, has probably already started the family tree. My cousin Dianne had 90% of the work done before I ever logged onto ancestry.com. Ancestry.com is free to join and mess around with, but you have to a pay a little for the heavy research. I pay for a month here and there, when I’m really into it, and then cancel the paid/premium portion of my membership when I’m in a lull. If you’re in my tree and you’re interested, let me know and I’ll invite you.
The past is every bit as interesting as the present. And everyone needs a hobby.