So why do this? Does anybody really care about such distant relatives? Do I even care? Is it just my general compulsive need for a sense of completion? For being thorough? Or is there something pushing me forward, person by person, line by line?
Some of it is definitely my neurotic need to finish things. Until recently I would finish any book I started even if I hated it. Then finally I realized, “Hey, I hate this book. I do not need to finish it.” It was tough, but I started realizing no one was grading me if I put the book away. And it is not just books. When we moved into our new home five years ago, I stayed up past 3 am just to put away every last dish, fork, pot, and coffee mug in the kitchen. Craziness.
But I do think that something else impels me to keep researching and writing about all these distant cousins. First, it gives me the big picture about the lives of my ancestors. I start to see trends and patterns. For example, I would not have seen how important the liquor trade became in the family and the country if I had not followed all those Simon and Nusbaum relatives who started selling liquor in the 1870s. I would not have understood how important the peddler trade was to early German Jewish immigrants if I did not study all the Nusbaum siblings. I would not have sensed the broad impact of the 1870s depression by studying just my direct ancestors. And as I move into the 20th century, I would perhaps not have seen how suddenly education became a much bigger factor in the lives of these families as both sons and daughters started getting a college education.
So in order to appreciate the larger society in which our ancestors lived, it is important to research not just your direct line but those collateral to it. But there is more there. Because I could do all that research and not blog about these people. I am no fool; I know that it doesn’t make for sexy reading to follow the life of someone who was born, grew up, sold hats, got married, had children, and died. So why even bother posting on the blog about that ordinary person? Partly because we all live ordinary lives. Most people are never in the paper for anything “interesting.” Most of us are not politicians or entertainers or criminals. Most of us are born, grow up, go to work, have families, and die. Don’t we matter? Won’t our grandchildren want to be able to tell their grandchildren something about their ancestors? I hope so.
And then there is this other thing. It hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s happened to me enough that I know it can happen. Someone googles their great-grandfather’s name, say Simon Nusbaum, for example. They land on my blog, and they learn something about their great-grandfather that they never knew—for example, that he was Jewish or that he was the son of a once successful merchant in Philadelphia. And they leave a comment on the blog, and I now have a new cousin with whom I share a family history and some smidgeon of DNA.
Isn’t that worth it? Right now I am searching for the living descendants of my three-times great-grandparents and their many siblings, and I have found a number of them. They are mostly my fifth cousins with a few fourth cousins mixed in. Some I have already emailed, others I will today. I have not heard back from those I emailed, as is often the case. Maybe they think I am a crazy person. Maybe they have no interest today. But maybe in a month or a year they will wonder about their ancestors and find my blog or find me.
And even if just one of them responds to me, it is worth it. Maybe they will have a picture of John Nusbaum and Jeanette Dreyfuss or one of their children. Even if they don’t, I will have helped them learn about their family’s history, and that will make all of this worthwhile.