Why do genealogy?

So why do we do genealogy anyway?

Leva & Ova Livingston

The Legal Genealogist is still fighting connectivity issues in rural Indiana (the thick brick walls of a historic riverside hotel mean no wifi for me!), but if one-finger-cellphone-typing will hold up for just a little while, I have got to tell you one thing:

If you ever in your life have wondered why we do genealogy and what good things like the 1940 census can be, I have the answer for you.

It was written on the face on my soon-to-be-93-year-old cousin Thelma in Indiana yesterday morning when, for the first time, she saw her family’s entry in the 1940 census.

Thelma is my grandmother’s first cousin, my first cousin twice removed, and one of the reasons why I was so looking forward to attending the National Genealogical Society conference in Cincinnati was that I would be able to go on west of the Ohio River and meet Thelma and her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren here in Indiana.

I knew what I was hoping to get from this visit. I wasn’t really sure what to hope that Thelma might get from it. But after I handed her that 1940 census page, I didn’t have to wonder any more.

It wasn’t just that it’s a tangible link to her father, Leva Pyron Livingston (1891-1984) and her mother Ova (Winningham) Livingston (1890-1963), and to her brother Denton (1913-1982) and sister Esta (1917-2006). I had showed her the 1920 census (where she’s listed as a six-month-old boy named Thelma!) and the 1930 census as well (where she’d morphed back into a girl) that enumerated them as well.

But by 1940, Thelma was a young woman, age 20, about to begin her schoolteaching career, and much more familiar with neighbors near and far than she’d been as a younger child. On that census, far more than on earlier censuses, the names of those nearby were more than just names. They were friends, neighbors, a boy she’d dated, a child she would go on to teach.

I watched her face as she looked at that census page for the very first time and I saw her eyes light up. “Oh! There’s the Calloways!” she exclaimed. “We used to visit them ever Saturday night. In the winter even if the weather was bad we could go play dominoes or gather round the piano and sing.”

Her finger moved up and down the page, again and again. Another name, another memory, another bit of history recaptured and shared. Not History in the big sense but in-depth, up-close and personal. The history of her family, remembered, and shared with me, a part of her extended family she’d only just met.

We have moved on from that census to the storms of spring and to the problems of life on the dust bowl. We’ve gone from to picking cotton to making dresses from flour sacks. We have covered the distance from going to school barefoot in second grade in Oklahoma to teaching barefoot children in Florida.

But it all began in that moment, with the shining eyes and the gentle smile, and the 1940 census.

And that… that is why we do genealogy and what good the 1940 census can be.

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32 Responses to Why do genealogy?

  1. Caroline Pointer says:

    Yes. And amen!

    ~Caroline Pointer

  2. Jana Last says:

    Aw, very sweet! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Vicki Wright says:

    Spot-on, as usual. Thank you for introducing us to cousin Thelma, as well. I love how showing her the census record elicited all of those memories. What a wonderful gift, for you and for her.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The census image was almost like turning on the faucet. We’ve talked til our tongues are tired!

  4. Thank you for sharing this… :-)

  5. Debi Austen says:

    You are so right! My mother and I were preparing for the 1940 census for several months. She was 12 in 1940 and her parents were going through a pretty messy divorce. For that reason, she wasn’t sure exactly where she’d be but she had some ideas. When I couldn’t find her, she was stumped for just a minute and then blurted out “oh, I was probably with my mother in the hotel in Oakland”. Hotel, what hotel? She knew the name (amazing what you can remember from 70 years ago) and I was able to find the address, the enumeration district and then, lo and behold, I found HER! And when I told her about it, she remembered lots of things that she’d never told me before.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Amazing, isn’t it? how these memories just come flooding forward! I’m just awed by the whole thing.

  6. Great story! makes all the work worth it!

  7. Lynn Palermo says:

    What a lovely story, thanks for sharing.

  8. A beautiful story – I loved the way your words painted a picture in my mind :) I can’t wait to share the 1940 census with my great-grandmother who lived in Beaufort, SC, near Parris Island. She was close to turning 18 and moving out of her parent’s home. All those neighbors are the children she grew up playing with. I can’t wait for the stories!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kimberly, I envy you having this in front of you! I’m at the end of the visit now — on to KY tomorrow — and it’s bittersweet to have to leave!

  9. Denise Spurlock says:

    What a great story, Judy! It’s wonderful that you were able to share the census with Thelma and that it brought back such a flood of memories for her and you.

  10. Celia Lewis says:

    Ohmygoodness… a few little tears popped up with reading about her memories about her neighbours and others on the census! I’m so glad you had the wonderful opportunity to share the Census page(s) and hear her stories too. How exciting and satisfying that must have been.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Soul-satisfying, Celia. Deeply moving for sure. A part of my family history lost to me in my own line with my grandmother’s death in 1995, and now suddenly laid out for me. It’s been wonderful.

  11. I second Caroline’s ‘Amen’! What a fabulous image of that shared experience…

  12. Barbara Gallagher says:

    I just love your postings!! Thanks for hanging in there with the lack of wifi…we really appreciate it!

  13. Kathy says:

    Thanks for not giving up on one-finger-cellphone-typing! It was worth it. Makes me want to visit some relatives and share a census record or two!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      This has been so amazingly worth it — if you get the chance for a similar trip, all I can say is… GO!

  14. What a lovely and meaningful post, Judy. And a great reminder not get so caught up in the research process that we forget the joys of just sitting and sharing. How neat that the 1940 census brought back so many memories for Thelma!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh Shelley — the joys of just sitting there and sharing!! I was appalled when I actually ran out of questions — my brain was so full of cool new information.

  15. Wonderful! Everyone should replicate this activity in hopes of stirring up memories that should be recorded.

  16. Dana Kessler says:

    I, too, enjoyed your story–it is such fun to make these connections. Last year I provided some census records and a ship manifest to an elderly woman (90+) with whom I worked–during one of my visits, she became so excited when I mentioned I did genealogy and she told me that she had a lot of questions about what happened to her grandfather who doesn’t appear with the family in the US. I, too was intrigued, and unfortunately couldn’t find any info on her father but did find the rest of the family over the years. She was so delighted with this info, and, thought of a lot more details just like your cousin did, as she looked at the very hard to read documents. It was a feel good moment for me. Her obituary was in last week’s paper–I am so glad I could give her a little joy near the end of her long life.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Good for you, Dana — and what a neat thing that you were able to do this in time. That always worries me with our older relatives — that we’re going to run out of time.

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