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  • Writer's pictureDana Webster


I was 16 when my dad first tried to introduce me to genealogy. I couldn't have been less interested. What did I care about some old farts who lived a million years ago? The only question about family that this insular teenager wanted answered was "How did I end up with this one?"

No response being forthcoming, I let the question sit in the back of my mind where it awaited a plausible explanation. Like how I was abducted from my real family and it was only a matter of time before they rescued me from the imposter family. (The fact that my dad was adopted lent this scenario some plausibility).

frog in pond, green leafy plants
How I imagine the back of my mind looks

At the time, dad was trying to decipher a document that was hand-written back in the day (like 200 years ago) and, it follows, was nearly impossible to read. The cursive of olden times was way too pretty with its affected flourishes and old-timey spelling. Dad furnished me with his Archives of Ontario membership card, a subway token, and the promise of $5.00/hr if I could make sense of the thing. I couldn't. And because I've never been motivated by money, not even the promise of a few bucks could rally my enthusiasm, let alone perseverance.

It puzzled me, my dad's fascination with his family history. He spent hours, weeks, years on the research. No internet in those days so he wrote query letters on his electric typewriter, his two index fingers circling and finally landing on the keys he needed. He got pretty good at it. His letter writing was formal and friendly, always offering something relevant to the receiver before asking for what he needed. As in, "I might draw your attention to ..." and, "Should you have the time, I would greatly appreciate ..." Ever the gentleman.

Genealogy was dad's life's work. Over the years he amassed hundreds of documents, thousands of fact-checked details all hand-written on to index cards which were cross-referenced with more index cards. Filing cabinets full of alphabetically ordered green legal-sized folders neatly filed one behind the other. His office was bursting with research paraphernalia: rolled-up maps, hand-drawn family charts, photo albums, history books, yellow lined legal pads, paper clips, and pens. I can picture his desk now, the typewriter front and centre, the ashtray overflowing with Medallian cigarette butts to the right, a cup of black coffee next to that.

I inherited it all when he died. By then, I had collected my own room full of paraphernalia as I'd caught the genealogy bug somewhere in my late 30s when I started researching my mom's side of the family. I'd inputted all of dad's research to and built the King family tree. Dad was delighted to see it all there, in one place, but never took to the internet himself.

Over the years, dad told many stories about his family, my family. The more I heard, the more I felt like I belonged. These were my people, my roots. Their stories were my stories. The fact that my dad was adopted added an intriguing layer to my sense of belonging. I wouldn't take the time to really explore that until years later when I took a DNA test and it hit home that I have a whole other family to which I belong. I often wondered if dad's obsession with his adoptive family wasn't a way to help him find his place in the world. The psychological effects of adoption can run deep.

Genealogy was a language dad and I had in common. We could talk about that and understand each other. For a man of so few words, he could talk up a storm when recalling who, what, where and when. It was our bonding communication.

Wm McKenzie King and Ellen Cosgrove Lynch are my 2nd great grandparents

It was dad's hope that he and I would collaborate on a book about the King family. His extensive research, my writing skills, his story-telling style, my ability to spell correctly. I imagined us hunkered down in his office, his wooden chair squeaking with each rotation toward me as I took notes from the black leather couch. I'd have my own ashtray to fill and my own cup of black coffee to sip on. Alas, this plan never came to fruition.

I don't ask myself that teenage question anymore - "How did I end up with this [family]?" I know the answer. I am rooted in knowing my ancestors as intimately as one can generations later. I come from Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Quebec and more. I am a multi-cultural amalgamation of thousands.

To know my ancestors is like wrapping myself in a warm blanket of acceptance and welcome. After all, they live on in me through DNA and experiential encoding. I am them as much as they are me.

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