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Family Traditions and History

May 29, 2020

I love puzzles.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a jigsaw puzzle, word search, logic problem, or a mystery novel or movie.  I really enjoy trying to piece all of the clues together into a logical answer.  But, I get really annoyed when I read a novel or watch a movie where the solution is announced at the end with a brand new piece of information that was critical to the answer.

I have been curious about my family’s history for a long time.  My Mother’s family has been well established in New York since the 17th century and we have extensive family trees.  It’s really interesting to look through the materials and see where we come from.

My Father’s family, on the other hand, isn’t documented at all.  My paternal Grandfather disappeared when Dad was a toddler and my paternal Grandmother’s family isn’t documented beyond her mother. 

I had never realized it, but I have a ready-made gigantic puzzle just waiting for me to solve.

In addition to the knowledge of your family traditions and history, there can be a medical benefit to researching your family history. 

A friend of mine researched his family tree when he was in his thirties.  Once he had a fairly extensive tree developed, he realized that not a single man on his Mother’s side of the family had lived past the age of 45.  All of the men had died young from heart disease. 

Armed with this knowledge, my friend went to his doctor and learned that his cholesterol levels were very high for a man of his age and activity level.  Together, they put together a plan of diet, exercise and medication to proactively battle this genetic predisposition to heart disease.  My friend held a huge “I Made It” party when he turned fifty, and recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday. 

To help focus attention on the importance of family history, the Surgeon General, in cooperation with other agencies with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has launched a national public health campaign, called the Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative, to encourage all American families to learn more about their health history. Part of this initiative is “My Family Health Portrait,” an online tool you can use to record your family health history and learn about possible risks that may run in your family.  You can view this tool at https://phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html/index.html.

Beyond the practical reasons of a family medical history, researching your family tree is interesting and can be challenging.  I have found that there were at least three men who grew up in the same area as my paternal Grandfather who shared the same name—even the same middle initial.  One of these men’s father came from Canada and census takers always spelled his name wrong.  I think his name was Cyril, but I have seen it spelled at least six different ways in records over a fifty year span.  Cyril’s wife, Elmira, suffered the same difficulty with census takers.  Her name also takes many variations.    It makes me wonder if Cyril or Elmira had a strong accent or was difficult to understand for some other reason.  Even if it turns out that these are not my ancestors, I’m curious to find out more about them.

There are several online services—both paid and free—that you can use to find old documents and information about people.  I find myself jumping between services, trying to follow a trail. 

It’s fascinating. Just beware—and I speak from painful experience here—3:30 a.m. comes very quickly when you are consumed in a puzzle!