A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling logy at work, I’ll jog up and down the three flights of stairs in my office building. I do sets of exercises each time I reach the tucked-away basement. I used to do my jack knifes, squats, and pushups at the top of the stairs, but people would often be spooked when they turned into the stairwell and spotted me huffing and puffing on the landing situated just before the stairs open out onto the roof. The location I used before that was a recess in the hallway near the service elevator. I moved from there when not one, but two different dogs came over and sniffed my scalp as I did my push-ups (my office building is pet friendly). Those dogs made me feel a little vulnerable. So, I moved to the barely used basement for my privacy and to maintain other peoples’ sense of security.
The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s directly adjacent to the back door of the building. Many office workers take their cell phones to that landing, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to their desks. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. My perfectly innocent presence still scares them when I emerge from the dank basement to cross between them mid-conversation and continue my jog up the stairs. I should also mention that my office building houses about 20 different companies, so these are people who don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that likes to scare people and enjoys having his scalp sniffed by dogs.
In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.
And sometimes, I must admit, I feel a little like my family’s genealogical creeper: lurking in unseen corners, overhearing the snippets of their lives I find on documents and pictures, surprising newly found relatives on Facebook asking for info about their relatives after sniffing them out.
That’s why I’ve all but given up researching living relatives. As much as I would like to bring my distant cousins together, it feels intrusive and a little stalker-y knowing my connections to people who don’t know me. Also, I realized early on in my research that my feelings of connection to my relatives went unrequited more often than not (not to discount my family members who were open to connecting).
That was a hard lesson I had to learn just about out of the gate. I found some relatives and was instantly rejected because of bad blood. I just couldn’t understand their rebuffs at first. What’s the big deal?, I thought, the past is past.
But it’s not.
If that were true, genealogy wouldn’t exist. Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there. And genealogists like me are set on rifling through it like the NSA does a suspicious suitcase. The past is directly tied to our present. Some events in the past are still so raw and tangible that a single name might burble up the pain or joy we associate with it to our surfaces like blood to a blushing cheek. And some details in our past can transfer to seemingly unrelated people and things. An inconsistent parent can deem an entire branch of a family tree unsavory. Words left unsaid to a loved one can fester and make a person want to never talk about that person again. I realize that now. (Insert grateful prayer here about having to learn that lesson as opposed to having to live it.)
So, I often wonder if my research is ticking my ancestors off, like it did those relative who rejected my interest in them. Knowing that quite a few of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet, honest lives. Perhaps, they weren’t the kind to talk about themselves. Or I wonder if they would rather I stick to the facts instead of making up my own flouncy stories about them. Perhaps more to my point, I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. Most of them probably wouldn’t have agreed (while they were living) with my life as a gay man. They were after all solid, modest Midwesterners living their lives as best they could in the capsules of their time. Some or most of them might have thought less of me, might have disowned me, might have sent me off to ‘conversion therapy’ camps, might have ignored me completely.
But I hope not. (Insert another grateful prayer here about the ability for times to change and for my very supportive family.) I hope they’re happy I’m interested in their lives, happy in my efforts to remember and learn from them, happy to have lights shine on events that no longer elicit bad feelings, happy I’m spreading their tales. I happen to believe, among many other things, that our relatives can see our lives from our perspective after they’ve passed, and I’d like to think that they know that I’m striving for the same goals they did: exacting my own quiet, honest life the best way I can in the capsule of my own time.
Surprisingly, that task has involved a lot more gasping strangers and dog snouts than I ever expected.