Alex Haley’s book, Roots, first sparked my interest in the study of family history. It fostered an acute awareness in me of the strength, the pure willpower of each of our fore-bearers, to survive. The legacy we all share, regardless of our biological beginnings, is that we are all descendants of survivors—generation after generation of survivors. That book gave me a better understanding of the miracle that each one—in his or her own place and time—survived at least long enough to produce what would become us! You know, that is an astounding thing when you think about it.
By the time I got serious about doing family research, my grandparents had all died. My parents had limited information. I was on my own for nobody in my family from either side shared my interest in our family roots. So, when I began to wonder about my ancestors, who they were, and where they came from, I had no clue where to start, or who to ask. I also had no idea how addictive delving into old records would become.
My search began in 1983 when I went to the courthouse in Hopkins County, Texas where both sides of my families have lived since the 19th century. I easily discovered my paternal grandfather’s birth certificate. I will always be grateful to him, for he had recorded it himself, late in his life. He had been born in another state at a time when birth records were not even required. Although he never discussed his history with me, that single act of registering his own birth, with all the detailed information about his parents, endeared him to me even more. The information from that single document began what would become a never-ending quest. Soon, I was unraveling one mystery after another, discovering surname after surname, birthplace after birthplace, headstone after headstone. I was hooked.
Hours spent in genealogy libraries, courthouses, and cemeteries across East Texas, turned into months. I pushed further east, always eastward, retracing the journeys of my pioneering families. Months turned into years, as I traced them all the way to the Atlantic. My pursuit became a full-blown obligatory obsession, in the sense that if I didn’t, who would?
I uncovered one European immigrant ancestor after the other, as they established themselves in America’s colonial life and times. Imagine the sense of pride I felt in discovering my Revolutionary War soldiers. In time, I connected my line to knights and lords, and their ladies, ancestors all. Why, it was the stuff of fairy tales for me!
That was before the computer took over our lives, certainly my life. The different methods of record keeping—organization and arrangement—became a kind of mania, as I looked for better ways to display the ever-increasing tangle of connecting lines. Oh, it kept me awake nights! I compiled book after book, after book, and filled several file cabinets with family group sheets, ancestor reports, and photocopied pages of census records. I kept every scrap of scribbling, for fear there might be something written there that would become important later. Now, a software program organizes everything for me, but boxes of those treasured original findings remain in my attic.
I am constantly aware now of the past, and realize that I am who I am in many ways because of the collective individuals who preceded me. What a fortunate woman I am to have learned about them, their rich and noteworthy history. My genealogy records are proof of my bloodline’s birthright, the validation of my unique place in the foundation and landscape of this country.
I had no way of knowing in the beginning the story ideas I would unearth, the creativity the old records would stimulate. My enthusiasm for research directed me back to school for a BA in English where my muse yawned and stretched into full arousal. I have not stopped writing since.
Just as my family tree germinated from the fertile soil of conclusive facts, growing quickly from a prolific root system into a substantial mass of limbs and branches, my fiction takes root in the shadows, in the never-to-be explained hiding among the twigs and beneath the leaves, of that same tree. The hunt I began almost twenty-five years ago for personal history has evolved into another kind of foraging.
Now, I filter through the documented data for the undiscoverable missing fact, the invisible key that will open the door to fiction where some imaginary female soul can live, one who never existed, but could have had Fate been willing. And who knows? Perhaps she did exist, like light radiating from an undiscovered star, physically invisible due to the limited capabilities of time.
It could be someone an ancestor glimpsed, even touched in passing, on the road, or on some street in a bustling city, on the train, or along the wagon trail, in some church, or whorehouse, at a county fair, even perhaps at a world’s fair.
Conceivably, she was someone my grandmother or great-grandmother, or one of the grandfathers, would have befriended, even loved, had she truly existed. I search for her, for I can no more avoid giving her and her counterparts literary life than I could neglect recording my own genealogy.
My quest continues.