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Up a family tree

By Leslie Larson, Oprah.com
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Mon August 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Finally signing up for ancestry.com opened the author up to a world of information
  • Finding royals and pilgrims and a guy named Strongbow in her lineage was thrilling
  • But her failing to eat or bathe while gaping at ancestry.com was less beneficial
  • The last day of the author's membership was for her like returning from a long journey

(Oprah.com) -- When I was old enough to wonder, I was told I was Norwegian, which seemed likely enough given my surname, my high cheekbones and the fact that my grandmother on my father's side came from North Dakota, ate pickled herring and darned her socks on a lightbulb. Proud of her heritage, she taught me and my cousins that pain, fear and illness were to be endured without a fuss (think Vikings).

Crying, complaining and shirking work were for other people. Norwegians were clean, industrious, levelheaded and reticent. They didn't have time for chitchat or idle emotion.

When I got older, my mother told me, "Your grandmother might have married a Norwegian"-- my ne'er-do-well grandfather -- "but that doesn't make her one."

It irked her that her mother-in-law called her an Okie, looked down on her Baptist upbringing and interpreted her refusal to iron sheets or wear shoes around the house as proof of her hillbilly origins.

My other grandmother, my mother's mother, had an equally unreliable account of her side of the family: "We got some English, some Irish, maybe a little German," she said, then hinted that there might be more genes in the pool -- Choctaw, African-American and French.

The ingredients and proportions varied with each telling, like a poorly remembered recipe. Shortly before she died, she told me, out of the blue, "My granddaddy was a full-blooded Indian. He scared the living tar out of me."

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Because my so-called roots seemed fragmented and diffused, a mixed bag of hearsay and conjecture, I never took much interest in them. What difference did it make? I had cultivated my own persona, and if I had to be proud of something, I was proud of being Californian -- a restless, free-thinking breed.

We loved the outdoors, made fantastic wine and ate organic produce. We were a melting pot, believers in fresh starts, in live and let live. Our homeland was on the edge of the continent, where people came to seek adventure and escape their pasts

The California sunshine had given way to halfhearted drizzle the morning I succumbed to the onslaught of pop-up ads, e-mail blasts and Facebook sidebars offering a 14-day free membership to ancestry.com. Maybe I was stalling a few minutes before getting to work. Maybe I had always wondered. Maybe my past did matter.

I typed my name into the search engine, hit the return key, and Las Vegas erupted right there at my desk; judging by the flashing lights and clanging bells going off, I had hit the jackpot. Before I could reach for my mouse, the software kicked into gear with the seductive force of a crossword puzzle, sudoku and video game rolled into one. I was hooked.

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Every piece of information I fed into the machine paid back threefold. Entering my grandfather's name yielded not only his birth, marriage and death certificates, but the names and dates of his siblings -- all 12 of them.

Documents floated up from the ether: census forms, wills and immigration papers alongside visual gewgaws -- coats of arms, tombstones, historical portraits and photos of ancestral castles. My response was primal. I threw myself into an orgy of clicking and typing, snatching the low-hanging fruit as my family tree grew exponentially.

I learned that my great-grandma Butch, an appellation that always raised eyebrows (now I know she was married to a butcher), was really named Pauline. At Ellis Island, my father's family traded its hard-to-pronounce surname (Gjoastein) for something friendlier to English-speaking tongues. My mother's father was born on Indian territory (could the Choctaw myth be true?).

Branch after branch sprouted, each reaching back to an earlier generation. A surprise party of deceased relatives popped up from their hiding places, shouting their names: Shadrack, Minerva, Jehoida, Synneve. I eagerly typed them into the software's placeholders, cameo-like silhouettes -- blue for boys and pink for girls. I skipped lunch and postponed my trip to the grocery store.

The most bewitching of all the ancestry.com apparatus is the small green leaf that appears next to a name to signal that you have a "hint" -- say, a link to the family tree of a distant relative or documents like an obituary, a military registration card or a ship's passenger list. Ignore the leaves and they begin to undulate: a coy, beguiling wave -- part Marilyn Monroe, part queen of England. Once in a while for unknown reasons, they momentarily freeze, then jitter in a collective orgasmic shiver.

Night fell; I didn't close the blinds. When the dogs started to whine for their dinner, I sent them to their beds.

Yes, I took my laptop to bed. And I didn't close the lid until I could no longer stay awake. I saw the leaves in my sleep, curling and waving, beckoning coquettishly on the periphery of my dreams, my ancestors calling, "Come find me, across the generations."

In the morning I woke with a sense of shame, then opened the laptop before brushing my teeth.

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My partner happened to be out of town that weekend, so I was free to indulge full-tilt -- guilt-ridden, because I was avoiding responsibilities, but without fear of discovery. "Research," I answered when she phoned to see what I was up to. As we chatted I clicked as silently as possible, scanning documents and calculating dates while trying to keep up my end of the conversation.

But I was onto something. My grandmother, the supposed Norwegian, hailed from a line of New Englanders on one side and Danes on the other. Her husband, my grandfather, was indeed a second-generation Norwegian, descended from fishermen and farmers on a southern fjord.

More surprising was my mother's family. With growing amazement I traced her ancestors through the Civil War, the Indian Removal Act and the Louisiana Purchase. My anxiety about what I might find was somewhat assuaged by their apparent poverty. From all appearances, they were subsistence farmers who raised an average of 10 children each generation -- too poor to hold slaves or to do much of anything but survive.

Viewing the census records, with the names and ages of the people in each household, made it real for me. For one thing, imagine the sheer number of all those children, who came regularly every year or two. Naming them alone would be a chore, not to mention bathing, feeding, and housing them without conveniences like electricity and running water.

I fell into a rhythm. I abandoned my research and cribbed from the family trees of members who had clearly spent thousands of hours combing through documents and chasing down details. The software makes it easy to leech off the labor of distant relatives.

About that time, I realized that you could spend the rest of your life tricking out your tree -- adding anecdotes, pieces of history, visuals. You could visit cemeteries, courthouses, countries and towns of origin. You could network with other members; spend all your time among the dead.

My tree began to sprawl as I copied entire branches from fourth and fifth cousins many times removed. I ate dry cereal out of the box, stopped answering the phone and left my desk only when I absolutely had to. The hours flew by. I promised myself that, once the free membership expired, this relationship would end.

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Toward evening, I crossed into pre-American Revolution times. Yes, my ancestors were in this country before it was the United States of America, and here were the documents to prove it. One more leaf, one more generation, and I would stop, I swore, but two hours later there I was at the computer, glassy-eyed and stiff, still clicking away.

Odd names began to appear. Mercy. Charity. Honor. I checked the dates: 1620s. The place: Plymouth, Massachusetts. Pilgrims! My sense of identity went into a tailspin. I had never envisioned myself as one of those people. No, I was, uh... Norwegian, uh... working-class, hmm... Californian, let's see... Choctaw.

But there wasn't time to ponder these implications because a new leaf beckoned and I wanted to cross the ocean, get back to the old country pronto and find out exactly where those pilgrims had come from.

I slept with the laptop again that night. We were at it until the wee hours. I woke with a ragged hangover and saw myself in the mirror as my partner would when she returned home in a few hours -- disheveled, haggard, obsessed.

But I couldn't stop. I was inhabiting a different world -- the Middle Ages, to be precise -- because that's where my search had taken me the night before. In solidarity with my medieval ancestors who had lived in the wilds of Scotland and Ireland without benefit of electricity or polar fleece, I lit some candles and shivered in the morning cold as I thought of how they looked, what they ate and how they smelled. I pictured the runny noses of all those unwashed children and the winter darkness that must have been deeper than any I'd ever known. Animal skins, bows and arrows, beer for breakfast.

That's how my mind was running as the morning progressed, and I knew in just a few hours there would be a witness to my condition.

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Since I'm a writer, there was nothing to arouse my partner's suspicions when she walked through the door and found me in my "tight deadline" posture at the computer. My dilemma, as the day wore on, was that I desperately wanted to hide what I was doing and just as desperately wanted her to know about the royal blood coursing through my veins.

Because the farther back I went, the more exalted my family's standing became: Lady Marshal, the future Countess of Gloucester; the Earl of Pembroke; Dermot, king of Leinster, and his queen, Mor O'Toole. What had happened, over the centuries, to cause my family's fortunes to plummet?

Finally, at dinner, I let fall that I'd fooled around a little on ancestry.com while she was gone.

"Turns out I'm related to Irish royalty," I added nonchalantly.

"No wonder you're so bossy."

"No, really. It's all documented. Ever heard of Strongbow?"

Actually, I had never heard of Strongbow, either, but now that I was related to him I was insulted that she hadn't. Certainly she'd heard of Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, who also happened to be in the family.

I cut the conversation short because I was dying to get back to my computer. Right before dinner I'd experienced a major frisson when the Marys, Johns and Elizabeths petered out and names like Gormflaith, Corcc and Lachtnae began to replace them. Was it possible that I was heading into pre-Christian times? Was I on the trail of my pagan ancestors?

In truth I was heading for the deep end. The compulsion that had prompted me, as a child, to craft 20-foot-long timelines, memorize all the flags of the world and hoard fingernail clippings in my piggy bank was kicking in. I began to study coats of arms, visit the Web sites of portrait galleries and look up the etymology of Gaelic names. The current world -- with its deadlines, ringing phones and traffic jams -- faded, while the one in my imagination grew wings and took flight.

Best of all, this richer and more compelling world was all about me. If I'd known at age 20 that I belonged to a tribe of warriors and rulers, who knows what I might have accomplished?

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I had to hurry, didn't I, if I wanted to investigate every last leaf before my two-week free membership ran out. But by day 13, I was exhausted. Strung out. Behind on my work and getting flabby. As I approached the 8th century, more and more preposterously famous names began cropping up. The fact that I had the faculties to find this fishy was a sign that I was regaining my reason.

The last day of my membership was like returning from a long journey. I was happy to be back to the comfort and security of my home but sorry to leave the novelty and excitement of a foreign land. The whirligigs stopped spinning, and the ghosts slipped back into their graves. I went to bed at a reasonable hour and woke early, exercised and observed conventional rules of hygiene and nutrition. Answered the phone and responded to e-mail. Fed the dogs.

I was afraid that ancestry.com would send my tree into the chipper if I didn't sign on for official membership, but they weren't that cruel. Until I cough up the $12.95 monthly fee, I'm locked out of the search apparatus, but I can still go online and look. I can admire the tenacity of my DNA, which has survived ice ages, plagues, battles and migrations. I can ponder the twists and turns it took on its journey out of Africa to the edge of the San Francisco Bay. And I can still marvel at the leaf beside my name as it flutters, freezes and then -- with all the others -- trembles.

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