Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Who Do I Think I Am?

This sermon was presented by Laurie Ruiz on September 20, 2015.

Hi.  My name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver.  I am a white middle-class Presbyterian from Wisconsin - well I used to be Laurie Hamblin Oliver, but now I am Laurie Oliver Ruiz.  I used to be from Wisconsin, but now I live in Texas.  I guess I’m still middle-class – it depends on your definition and it sure doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Presbyterian – not anymore – now I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  And white - I still am, right? So much of our own identity comes from those words we use to describe ourselves:  religion, race, ancestry.  I consider myself a member of each wonderful, or not so wonderful, sometimes transitional  category.  But, come on, I’m from Wisconsin?  I learned way back in 4th grade that Wisconsin didn’t even become a state until 1848 - OK, I didn’t really know that, I had to look it up.  Better said - I was born in Wisconsin. I have lived in Texas for more than 30 years which is why I no longer consider myself a Wisconsinite but yet can’t, or won’t claim to be a Texan.  I've always considered myself to be part of a broader group – Scottish. Maybe that is part of the reason I have had such a desire - more accurately described as an minor obsession - with researching my family tree. To borrow from the TV show - “Who Do I Think I Am?”

I’ve never really thought about why I can’t seem to stop doing research on my ancestors.  I decided to look for reasons that people do genealogy.  They varied greatly: finding adopted family members, finding stories and pictures before they are lost forever, understanding personal traits, knowing where to travel on vacations, finding connections to people and places in the world, proving and/or disproving family lore, conquering the puzzle, a personal connection to history. Another important reason was for medical reasons - tracing genetically passed on conditions or a pattern of health problems.  For me it’s a combination of reasons and it seems they change as I get older.

     Alex Haley, author of the book and miniseries Roots writes: Young and old alike find that knowing one's roots, and thus coming better to know who one is, provides a personally rewarding experience. But even more is involved than uncovering a family history, for each discovered United States family history becomes a newly revealed small piece of American history. Stated simply: a nation's history is only the selective histories of all of its people. It is only through an unfolding of the people's histories that a nation's culture can be studied in its fullest meaning.

In  my words - Have you ever done a crossword puzzle?  If you have, you quickly learn that one wrong entry can sabotage filling in the rest of the puzzle.  Did you want to “cheat” and peek at the answers in the back of the book - maybe just one or two words that would enable you to then use your brilliant thinking skills to find the answers on your own  - only to find out that the answers are not printed - anywhere?   Now imagine a puzzle that immediately dangles two new questions for every solution you do find. Growing exponentially , taunting you to continue on. That, to me, is the essence of genealogy. Add in the fascinating stories, internet “friending” of relatives and I find myself unable to stop. 

I have always had an interest in my ancestors.  When my son was in kindergarten and Thanksgiving rolled around I figured he would love to share the story of his ninth great-grandfather, John Howland, coming to the New World on the Mayflower, falling overboard, and being one of the original pilgrims. Nah, he didn’t want the attention and never took the carefully printed paper out of his backpack . Now, me, I had gone on this new “internet” to get the Pilgrim details that I had long since forgotten.  Wow - talk about a “New World”. Once I started I didn't stop.   I thought I “knew” my heritage.  I was Scotch and English.  My dad’s parents were born in Scotland and my mom's family were from England of the Mayflower and through the Revolutionary war.  How little I actually knew.

One of the first things that became crystal clear was that I could not choose my relatives.  By the time I looked him up online that pilgrim, John Howland, had racked up some 2 million descendants.  I discovered a distant relation to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christopher Lloyd.  Pretty cool.  But then - you've got to take the bad with the good.  I was also related to George Bush - and I have more recently learned Sarah Palin.  Genealogy research can leave with with some warm fuzzies, but you also have to be prepared for anything. And I mean anything.  Partway into my research I heard from my cousin, a fellow family historian, that some of our ancestors had been slave owners. 

I started searching, back in 1998, with a simple internet search using the few names I knew and I was not finding any results.  This was back when most of the research sites were free, with slow, loud, dial-up connection that worked best in the middle of the night.  I had a hand-written list with names of my grandfather’s parents, his grandparents and some scribbled names for his uncles, Georgie, Scn, Mac - but according to the internet these people were all attached to the wrong families. It was frustrating and I figured my ancestors had all “been gone”  when the census taker came by.  I remember standing in the kitchen late one night and, out loud, asking my grandpa, long since gone - who are these people?  Lo and behold - he answered.  The very next day in the mail I got a letter from my aunt - telling me she had a letter from a cousin of my grandpa.  She lived in New Zealand and was trying to contact the American “Oliver” family.  The letter went on to tell me that her father was George - one of the names from the paper!  The “coincidence” still makes me shiver and I thank - or maybe blame -  my Grandpa for pushing me to research further.  After a few mistakes - like writing a wrong answer on that crossword puzzle-  I was pretty sure that my grandma’s parents had been first cousins - I quickly learned that accuracy and attention to detail and proof is very important.  I also learned to look passed or maybe around the obvious.  A wonderful, detailed copy of an old letter of family information from my new relative in New Zealand explained why the names I had been searching for never matched up.  My great-grandfather was , and I quote “the product of a liaison between William Oliver and a local servant girl”.  He was raised by his father’s family and both parents went on to marry other people.  My first lesson in making no assumptions.  With reference “make no assumptions” another family I found that during a 10 year period between the census records the mother had disappeared,  the kids were living with other families as “wards”, and the father was living with a cousin. I mourned for the kids losing their mother so young.  Just this week I came across a death certificate with her name, correct birthday, but apparently 92 years old, remarried, and up near Houston.  I need to do more research, but it appears I had taken the easy path, not the correct one.

Another interesting experience was one of those late night research endeavors to find death certificate of a particular ancestor.  These documents can be rich with details, including relevant medical information, like the one I just mentioned.  It was one of the few time I was using a paid source and being “Scotch” ( in other words -  thrifty) was used my credits sparingly.  Of course I had the misfortune to be looking for James Stuart in Scotland - sort of like John Smith here in the United States.  I knew generally where, when and with whom he had lived but none of the matches were quite close enough for me to spend the money to open the links.  Finally exhausted from the middle of the night search I decided to sleep on it.  During the night I got up and glanced at my box of old pictures near the bed.  I saw a picture of a woman I had never seen before but at that moment -knew to be Jane Green - wife of the man I had been searching for.  I can still see the details - long skirt with an apron, hair pulled back tight into a bun, black boot-like vivid.  She was repeating -”You’re looking in the wrong place, You’re looking in the wrong place.”  I never figured out if it was totally a dream or if I had even really gotten up, but in the morning I cranked up the computer and looked for James Stuart - in a different city, a different place - and there he was. I ordered the document and got a wealth of information.  For me - the connection - real or perceived - to this much greater “web of existence” is a big part of what keeps pushing me. 

I long ago decided that I didn’t want to collect names - but rather collect stories.  It’s a sort of like detective work.  I find a person in the different census reports and imagine the changes that had happened over the years.  A move across the country or the ocean, the death and/or birth of more than one family member, a marriage.  All of these can be pieced together to put together a story.  I knew that my great-grandparents had been married in Terre Haute, Indiana and didn't know why one family married in Indiana when everyone else was on the East coast.  Further research in the census showed me that my great-grandparents had lived a block away from each other in Boonton, New Jersey.  After the death of her mother the family moved to Indiana where her father had relatives.  Within months of the move she married, in Indiana, her beau from New Jersey and was again living on the East coast. I can imagine her emotions at losing her mother, moving away from her true love, and then leaving her father to move back East.  All done in the late 1800’s.  Another example was figuring out how my Grandparents met when they lived at opposite ends of Scotland.  The death certificate of my great-grandfather (my grandma's side) listed his place of death as the city my grandfather lived in – a connection that explains how they may have ended up meeting. Those are the details that I find so compelling.

 I've discovered that my mom's mother had been one of the few women Yeoman in the Navy during the first world war and worked a “decoder”.  And that my great great-grandfather had contracted malaria while camped in the Chickahamony Swamp during the McClelland Campaign outside Richmond during the Civil War.  His military pension file is full handwritten descriptions of the conditions, treatments, and lasting effects of the mercury pills they were given to “cure” the disease.    Or another ancestor – a soldier at Gettysburg in the Civil War – who for the rest of his life set an extra plate at the table and left the porch light on for his younger brother who had died  in a confederate prison camp.  For the first time I’m excited about history. I feel like I am a part if it.

Another unexpected benefit of my research was discovering the vast network of individuals who are willing to help each other in their research.  I had people In Scotland look up birth records in Edinburgh, others look up headstone inscriptions in Aberdeen.  The kindness was overwhelming.  Even better was when some of the people I “met” online were in fact cousins.  I have found grandchildren of my grandma’s sisters and brother in Scotland, England, and Australia.  We’ve set up a Facebook page where we can all share picture and stories.  It is an amazing connection.

Fast forward to fast internet and DNA testing.  Talk about expanding my web of existence!  My sister had her DNA tested and shared it with me. The first thing I saw was - 42% Ireland.  It was an odd feeling to see that what I had thought all of my life - who I was - dismissed so easily.  I don't feel a connection to Ireland, the people, the customs. Careful reading of the results explained that there isn’t a specific Scottish, English, or Irish category because they have been so busy conquering each other for centuries.  They do split it into Great Britain(more English) and Ireland (more Gaelic) I was about half and half.  So I was back into my comfort zone, but in the end maybe a little disappointed.  I also had just enough different traces of other European countries thrown in to keep me looking for those elusive “other countries”.  Alas, it's again the unexpected but the first day I looked at the DNA results I connected with a women who shared my great-grandfather, but not my great-grandmother.  It seems that my great-grandfather, an archeologist at Chichen Itza and consul to Yucatan had 3 familes.   One when he first moved to Mexico(about 5 kids), one when his wife moved to Mexico(6 kids – one of which was my Grandpa)and one after my great-grandmother and her school age kids came back to Massachusetts(about 5 kids).  It's been an interesting online reunion with some of the other grandchildren.  Another woman was angry because our trees didn't show an immediate match while our DNA indicated 3-4th cousins. She wanted me to call Ancestry and tell them they were wrong. It's been an interesting journey.

But what if your DNA results really don’t match what you always thought of yourself to be.  Would it make a difference in the way you think of yourself? If we live in the present does it matter where your ancestors came from, how they got here?  How much of our self image is tied to our ancestry?  My husband recently did a DNA test.  For those of you who haven’t met him he was born in Edinburg and is Mexican American.  He’s always know that he had a little bit of European ancestry, although you wouldn't really know it by looking at him.  One grandparent supposedly had some German background, there were some green eyes and fair skin that supposedly came from Spain…  Before his results came back we made some “educated guesses” about what we expected to see.  We assumed a lot of Mexican Indian, some Spain, and maybe a little German.  And, we were wrong.  To make a long story short - his DNA showed his ancestry to be 41% Native American.  It was a little disappointing to not be able to pinpoint which type Native American but it was surprising that it was under 50%. Even more surprising was that 52% of his ancestral DNA came from Europe- and only 15% was from the Iberian Peninsula.  A whopping 28% of his DNA came from Italy/Greece.  We never imagined, never once thought to look there for records.  He had never considered himself to be Greek or Italian, at all.  Then his trace DNA - well 9% Ireland, Scandinavia, Britain, European Jewish - throws a few more ingredients into the soup.  It puts a whole new spin on the 1900 census where his grandfather is apparently the ward of a family living in Brownsville - and the head of the household is Conrad Lawrence Cloetta born 1832 in Livorno, Italy.  Cloetta's obituary states that he came to this country as a young child and chose to live in Matamoros from 1868-1898.  What a story that will be to unravel - if the connection proves correct.

Most importantly, does it affect the way my husband thinks of himself in the world. In a nutshell - Hell, yes.   Suddenly there is a connection to millions of people never before considered.  He now feels compelled to learn about the area, geographically and culturally.  And the thought that he  might have 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins in Italy or Greece is mind blowing.  The term “Mexican American” no longer seems adequate to describe him. It will take more research until he feels comfortable with any new “label”.

So, who do you think I am?  How do I fit into this world?  Our UU “web” is a perfect description – it's ever expanding and sometimes tangled.  If you look at my family tree and DNA results and put them with my husband's tree and DNA results, which coincidentally makes up my son's ancestry, it will touch, in some way, every continent.  With that connection to history, that connection to so many countries, that many people how can I not continue to do research.  How can I not care about the lives, the stories, the travels that are in some way tied to me, to the life I know.  Again, Alex Haley says it perfectly: Every genealogical researcher shares one frustration that I know I will always live with. Was there something else I should have uncovered? My long curiosity about my family's roots and the twelve years of obsessively pursuing and writing about them surely have not ended my curiosity. Again put simply: I have learned to live with my genealogical addiction..... I can relate, Alex.

So. Hi, my name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver Ruiz and I am a Gaelic, British, a little bit European, Unitarian Universalist living in Texas.  Who do you think you are?

No comments:

Post a Comment