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  • Writer's pictureDana Webster

Genealogy, not just for old farts anymore

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

It is safe to say that my interest in family history research was borne of boredom. I was working a desk job at a company that was on its way out and I had very little to do to occupy me. So, one day I idly typed genealogy in the search bar and, holy cow, there were pages and pages of hits! My curiosity (probably the greatest personal motivator I possess) thus piqued, I visited the top ten sites, familiarized myself with how they worked, and began to narrow my searches to the few ancestors I was aware of.

Once I found that first ancestor online, I was hooked, lined and sinkered. It's like pulling a thread on a handmade sweater. First, I found my maternal great grandfather, Charles Caldwell, who emigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1887. Then I found his wife, Martha Jane Kyle, after whom my grandmother, Martha Jane Kyle Caldwell, was named. And, after whom, thankfully, I was not named although my mother tells me it came close. I much prefer the name I got.

Luckily, Charles, Martha Jane and their six daughters lived in Toronto. It meant I could access the Toronto-specific City Directories, Goad's Fire Insurance Maps, archived newspapers and more. Thus, hours of illicit research on-the-job was born.

Below is an 1890 listing of Charles when he lived at 256 Wellington St., W. He worked for dry goods proprietor Henry Moyle. Charles would later purchase the business from Moyle and operated it from the St. Lawrence Market.

Toronto City Directory 1890

There's a phrase that keeps running through my head - Genealogy, not just for old farts anymore. Even though, I know, I'm getting disconcertingly close to being old. But, in my defense, I started genealogy when I was in my mid-thirties. I understand that some elementary schools are introducing students to family tree building. I fully support this. How exciting for the young generation to have a sense of their roots from early on.

Except for our Indigenous peoples, we in North America are descended from immigrants. Our roots are elsewhere in the world. Uprooted due to circumstances - poverty, disease, war, slavery, marriage, colonialism, and criminality are some of the reasons for people to leave (or are forced to leave) the home of their ancestors and land somewhere completely new.

What if this mass migration has led to a yearning, often unacknowledged, for our ancestral homes, traditions, and cultures. It would certainly explain why I cry, unbidden, every time I hear the ancient melancholic sound of the bagpipes. My Scottish (English and Irish) heritage lives within and it feels like home whenever I see tartan and fall in love again with the accent.

I'd like to posit that the world suffers from a deep ungrounded malaise. Eons of displaced persons trying to maintain a sense of home whilst living in vastly different circumstances with very different people. Zenophobia anyone? Family history research goes to the very heart of who we are, how we identify ourselves, and to whom we feel we belong. Is there anything more fundamentally important than that? Secure in the knowledge that we belong, that we fit in, that we make sense, leads to a generosity toward others rather than inciting animosity toward "other".

Anything we can do to help us understand ourselves and those with whom we share space is a step in the right direction.

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