Thursday, June 28th, 2007
As a Father’s Day gift for my dad, I spent weekend before last wrangling the information I’ve gathered about our family for the past few years into what I hoped would be a cohesive, easy-to-view family tree.
I found a large parchment-like family tree template with room for up to nine generations of names, dates and whatever else you can squeeze on it, all arranged in a fan around a circle in which you write the name of the central figure – in this case my dad.
I’ve got Word doc after Word doc of information – a different one for each branch of the family, and as you can imagine, the further back you go, the more branches you have. I’ve had more success with some branches than others, but still I thought I’d fill up most of the tree.
But when I settled in at the kitchen table with my laptop, my “parchment” and my archival black pen, it quickly became clear that there would be a lot of blank space on the semi-circle of our family history.
For one thing, my dad’s mother – my Gran Gran – only met her father once and knew nothing about his family, or nothing she passed on to Dad anyway. So that whole slice of the pie is – and probably will remain – completely blank.
Then there are Gran’s grandparents, who each had incredibly popular names for their time, making them hard to track down. Who knew Nina (pronounced with a long “I”) was such a big hit in South Carolina in 1888?
So beyond the third generation, the maternal side of the tree was empty.
I had more luck on the paternal side, with one branch traced back to the late 1700s in Georgia and another traced (by someone else, so I don’t entirely trust it yet) back to the late 1600s in Germany.
But I’ve run into plenty of dead ends and mysteries over there, too – for example, who in hell was Eliza Patrick’s father?!
I presented the tree to dad anyway, promising an update one day in the future. I think I’ve hit the end of the what the Internet can tell me, at least for now (more and more archives are added all the time), and will have to venture into the unpleasant world of real-life records offices and courthouses. Yuck.
I don’t know when I’ll have time for all that, but there is one more thing I can do – persuade Dad to get a DNA test. His last name – and my maiden name – is Lambert, and there’s a professor at Northwestern who’s doing a DNA study of the surname in the United States. By comparing genetic markers of male descendants, Professor Joseph Lambert has already established there are several entirely separate Lambert families in the U.S.
I’m fairly sure we belong to Group B, descendants of Revolutionary War soldier James Lambert, who moved into Burke County, Georgia, from parts unknown. His descendant James (grandson? grandnephew? I haven’t found that official link yet – no Daughters of the Revolution for me) moved with his wife and many children to Washington County, Alabama, in the 1830s, and the Lamberts’ love affair with the Gulf Coast was born.
Dad will have to pay for a DNA test and send a cheek swap to the lab to be analyzed. That would confirm whether we belong to Group B or Group A (who came from North Carolina and lived in a nearby county in Georgia) … or if he doesn’t match either, it could even indicate some funny business back among our ancestors!
Dad seems interested – he’s always been a history buff, which is probably why I am, too – but I’ll have to be persistent because he’ll never take the initiative on his own.
Whether it helps us fill in the family tree or not, it’s certainly an interesting project, and I love the idea of contributing to it.
You know me – I hate change and letting go of the past. I’m a girl who is still hanging on to the first hideous shirt she wore on her first date with her first boyfriend.
Imagine how it pains me to think of letting the names fade away of all these generations of people who contributed their DNA to make up mine and sacrificed to raise the children that would raise the children that would raise me.
They may have been giant assholes for all I know, but I still wish I could meet them.
For example, Dad told me that what we fondly call “the Lambert crazy” – a tendency to be quick-tempered, self-centered and demanding – actually comes from my great-great-grandmother Nina Turner, who was sarcastically nicknamed “Saint Nina.” She passed the crazy to Gran Gran, who passed it on to all her children, who passed it to their children (including me and my sister). Those are some strong crazy genes!
It’s probably crazy, too, that I wish I’d known Saint Nina. She died a few years before my birth, but I wish I’d known her, if only so I could see in living color the saturated version of the Lambert crazy – the root of the poisonous plant.
I wish I had the chance to do what I sometimes do with my living relatives – watch them move and speak and interact, and wonder – am I really like them?
And then, with a mix of horror and pride, realize the answer is a resounding, inescapable YES.