I often find myself having to attempt to explain to bewildered friends just exactly why it is I'm so "into" genealogy. They'll see my source library or hear me mention, as we pass through or over a town, that I have "dead people" there. Even a trip to the NEHGS Library in Boston sparked a similar question from a Librarian there, in reference to my age (I'm quite a bit younger than most of those who get involved in this as a hobby).
I've given many answers to the question from the scholarly to the flippantly sarcastic ("My dead relatives are easier to get along with than the live ones, and much more fun.") But it has forced me to look at things a little more closely to try and pin down just exactly why it is I am so addicted.
My parents knew very little of their own family histories, and had no family treasures, trees, photos, bibles (plenty of bibles, but no "family" bibles) or keepsakes from which to gain clues. Growing up, we were told things like, "I remember your grandpa saying he was Pennsylvania Dutch," or "Your grandmother descended from an Indian Princess." No facts, fewer truths. But it was all we had, really. I suppose I wanted to know as a way of identifying myself. I won't go into my theories on the lack of a unifying identity in the U.S., as we would be here longer than our ancestors lived. But suffice it to say, I wanted an "identity," a past. In my very early teens, I made an attempt at researching my family names, but with no actual clues to tie things in, it was hopeless. I created my own identity, and was happy with that.
Flash forward quite a few years....
My partner's family had a fairly detailed genealogy of their own, and I began to explore that. The history contained in those pages, the lives they portrayed, fascinated me. These people struggled and survived. It was a connection to the past. Not my past, but a connection nonetheless. I still did not have the knowledge or skills needed to delve into my own lines. Then, one day, it happened. In about 1998, a long-lost cousin of my paternal grandfather's appeared at a family reunion (there had been some "bad blood" between their fathers, it seems, and they hadn't seen each other in fifty years or so). I wasn't there, but this cousin passed on some information about research his mother had done to one of my brothers, who sent it on to me. I finally had the clues I needed, at least to a couple of generations and places. Aided by the internet, and discovering the New England Historic Genealogical Society (there were hints that the Evarts had come from Connecticut) and its circulating library, I began to get somewhere.
So that's how I really got started with this whole thing. But not really why I do it. Sure, it's fun to have a pretty tree to hang on the wall, and nice to know where people came from and the like. But these are jut superficial reasons, a physical identifier of the effect, and not the cause. They don't explain why I'm just as happy to help someone completely unrelated to me with a spot of research now and then. If I have to break it down, my true reasons would probably be two-fold.
1.) I'm a researcher at heart. I like to find the answers to small puzzles and conundrums. I love poring through resources and books (actually, I love books in general). I'm not satisfied with just being told that something is, I want to have evidence, proof. I want to understand the whys and hows. I always want to know more. Some might say I'm obsessive, or even anally retentive. Professionally, I've held jobs that require precision and attention to the tiniest detail. And these things satisfy me. Genealogy fulfills these needs , as well, and goes far beyond. At times it drives me to the brink of frustration, and some might say insanity, but I've learned that eventually I will find what I'm looking for if I just keep trying.
2.) I'm also a sociologist at heart. I love people. Maybe not to be around them all the time, but to try and understand them. Why they do things, what drives or fulfills them, or "ruins" their lives. What holds a town or region together, or tears it apart. Through my genealogical research, I've learned more about history, the people and their connections, then I ever did in school. It makes it seem more real, more alive. It gives people who lived hundreds of years ago a connection to me, even if it's not by blood. I often come across people who, though not in my own lines, catch my attention for some reason or another, who did or didn't do something that makes them unique in my own mind. Their lives help to tie in the history, migrations, thoughts and ideas that, for better or worse, have made our society and world what it is today. They make the past real, just by having lived. There's more to this research than names and dates. These are merely necessities we're forced to wade through to get to the infinitely more important ideas, and aren't nearly as exciting as who these people really were, how they really lived, how they really felt about such things as the American Revolution and other wars. How they were excited or frightened by an impending migration. Towns, regions, communities becoming living, breathing entities. These are things that I never would have fully understood without having something such as the structured starting point of genealogy. It's not about a tree, it's about people, even if their lives were in the distant past.
Okay, probably no one will ever struggle through all this blather to get this far, but if you do, congratulations. I wrote it mostly for myself, to put into form the snippets I've thought and explained to others before. Maybe you've felt some of the same things yourself in the past. Or perhaps you just want to have a pretty tree or chart to hang on your wall. If this is the case, you're missing out. There's so much more to genealogy than just a "family history," and I encourage you to broaden your horizons to explore and embrace these things. You won't regret it.