The call came in September 2004.
“If I send you a book on ‘Genealogy on the Internet’, would you research our family history?”
It was my aunt speaking, my father’s younger sister. She was the only one left of the three children born to my paternal grandparents.
‘Oh’ I said, stalling for time as the thought processes whirred. And then ‘Yes, I’ll give it a go’, whilst wondering quite what it would entail.
As a child I had occasionally met my grandparents and my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides, but I didn’t really know them. I’d never heard any family stories or legends. However, years ago, I had my father tell me the names of his parents, their siblings and his cousins and I knew my notes were filed away – somewhere.
My father’s mother and siblings had been born to a Captain in the British Army in India and his wife. There had been some mention of Irish ancestry though I remembered that my father was rather dismissive of it. His father’s background was rather more hazy though Marlborough in Wiltshire was mentioned. How he’d got from there to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he met and married my grandmother, was never explained.
I had one clue to my paternal grandfather’s family. Buried in a cupboard was a box containing a silver tea set, which my brother inherited from our father. I was pretty certain there was an inscription though I hadn’t any idea what it said until I retrieved it.
The timing of this new adventure was fortuitous. I had been self employed but earlier that year I had become ill with an under active thyroid and had to stop working until the medication took effect. Just as I was about to resume work I had developed severe tinnitus which was very close to driving me crazy and had also acquired an arm and shoulder injury which meant that I was almost housebound. The injury was painful (and would take a year to heal) but the tinnitus was debilitating.
In all seriousness, I credit my aunt’s call and my family history research with saving my sanity at that time. I may not have been able to drive or to work normally but I was able to sit at my desk and use a computer as and when I was well enough to do so. Concentrating on the family history research kept my brain active and my mind engaged.
My sleep was severely impaired by the tinnitus and many times I was at my desk in the middle of the night. If there were days or weeks when I wasn’t well enough to do any research, it didn’t affect anyone else.
Once I had traced my father’s paternal family back far enough, I entered the details on Genes Reunited. Searching the names on the site, I spotted one who I thought was my great grandfather and sent a message to the contact.
A few days later I watched spellbound as a Gedcom file unrolled itself on my computer screen. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I scrolled through the names and dates of ancestors and their families, all farmers in Wiltshire. I wished that my father had been alive to see it. Indeed, I had the deepest sense that he was with me, looking over my shoulder.
My father had been upset that our family name, Jefferys, was going to die out with my brother, who has no children. Now I could see that we were but one branch on a large tree and there were others to carry on the name.
I think it was then that I understood the importance of knowing our roots. Family history started taking over my life.
Another important moment was when I discovered my grandmother was correct, that her parents were Irish. There is an Irish brick wall which needs dismantling but I know now where my love of Irish scenery and music come from. And I’ve discovered that my brother not only gets his looks from her father but also his travelling genes.
I am lucky as all the farms in Wiltshire which my ancestors owned were sufficiently away from the nearest towns or villages not to have been swallowed up by encroaching civilisation. Standing where my ancestors did, I found myself looking at the same views of hills and farmland as they did. I’d found the roots of my love of green English rolling hills. I’ve seen the houses in which they lived and found the graves of my great grandparents and beyond. That original Gedcom file began in the 1760s but I have since researched back to the 1550s, and now have a tree with 13 generations.
I’ve been fortunate to research other people’s family history too (including one going back to William the Conqueror!). Until recently, my partner knew nothing of his father’s family. I’ve spent many hours working on letters and papers in his family archives, unravelling very tangled threads. Through a tree on Ancestry.com I was able to connect him to his family. His excitement at having relatives, actual living family with his surname, is palpable.
The tinnitus kept me from returning to work and I retired in 2008. Since then, I’ve received considerable help in managing the tinnitus, to the point where it rarely disrupts my life now.
In January 2013 I gave a talk on family history and am now writing about my adventures in family history. I am the GAL, the Genealogist at Large. I am part of a community of family historians who delight in helping each other. And life looks far better than it did in those dark days when the tinnitus was driving me to the very edge of sanity.