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’80s nostalgia

New tools uncover old stories. ’80s nostalgia New tools uncover old stories.

The members of the special joint meeting of the Lorain County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society and the Black River Genealogical Group file into the airless meeting room atop the Lorain Public Library. A table of refreshments–lemonade and store-bought cookies–glitters on one side. An overhead projector splashes a hot rectangle on the screen.

Sue Strick, director of the Lorain County chapter, speaks on how to use the Soundex census code, which allows you to look up names even when you aren’t sure of the spelling. It’s an impressive consonant-swapping piece of 19th century cryptography.

In recent years I have been to several genealogical meetings with my mother, and each time I sense a different spirit. The first time, it was the sheer excitement of people finding out where they came from. That’s not nothing, when you consider how little this world wants us to know about itself.

Later, it was the excitement of the game–being able to find information against impossible odds. Genealogists are geniuses at finding new ways to do things, and sharing those tricks with one another. A good hunter knows to enclose a $5 when asking an assistant pastor at an Iowa church to look up a record–and a bottle of whiskey should the search turn up something good.

This time, what struck me was their cool confidence in technology. The big buzz tonight is the availability for the first time of the entire ’80s census on CD-ROM–that’s 1880. The collection, made available by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, which took years and a million input hours to compile, is 55 disks for $49. Ever hear of a better bargain that that?

The mood is ebullient. They have so many tools at their disposal–the Mormon storehouse, scores of valuable online sites, and an international network of people who are delighted to step in solve problems. Like characters in a role-playing game, they know how to turn documentary cul de sacs into information thoroughfares.

Despite poor health, my mom, Mary Mulligan Konik, still covers many bases. She corresponds with relatives and headstone hunters. Boxes and boxes of letters from people without PCs have piled up in her den. Five years ago she computerized, and she does a whole lot with little more than Netscape and a Family Tree database program.

Little things still flummox her, like how to unsubscribe to pesky genealogical e-newsletters, and how to make scary sounding dialogue boxes (“You have entered an illegal command!”) go away. But she has the main theme firmly in hand. As I sat with her the night before, she handed me one ancient clipping after another. They were more than names and dates, they were stories of real people:

A report of a farm accident in the 1870s. My father’s mother’s mother’s father’s father, Jeremiah O’Leary, age 62, had his feet mangled by a farm implement when he dangled his legs over the edge to have a chat.

Three old women in a log house. Three women of the generation younger than Jeremiah, ages 107, 106, and 103, lived in a log house together in Readstown, Wisconsin, the eldest being Ellen O’Leary Boyle, born in Kerry, Ireland, in 1838–still helping with housework and baking bread. In all that long life she never wore glasses.

My mother’s ancestor Lois Riley, born in 1771, caught in a sudden snow with her 8-year old daughter Lucy while walking home from a neighbor’s in the winter of 1818 in Geauga County, Ohio. They would have walked the remaining mile home, but a rising creek prevented them. So Lois and Lucy sat on a log, wrapped themselves in shawls, and spent the night in the woods. In the morning, they safely crossed the frozen creek.

After the meeting, I walk my mom to her car, thinking what solid stock we all come from. And though we doubt we could ever be like them, we have technology to help us learn. Let biologists tackle the human genome; we have a family genome to parse–remarkable people who led us to this moment in time. We have our work set out for us, and we have our tools.

Columnist Michael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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