The end-of-year holiday season is hard for me now that my parents have passed. Thanksgiving had always been my Jewish family of origin’s time to gather. My brother and I have continued to celebrate Thanksgiving with our immediate families and his wife’s parents, but the absence of our parents makes the occasion bittersweet. I miss them, too, at Hanukkah, when we always lit a menorah and exchanged gifts. I’m finding comfort this year, however, in a new project to uncover and preserve our family history.
Our adventure began about a month before Thanksgiving, when my brother connected with a long-lost cousin via a genetic-testing service. The cousin shared some documents related to relatives who had immigrated from Eastern Europe, and that allowed us for the first time to identify the specific town where they had lived — information we had thought was lost forever. We even discovered that not all of our relatives had left their homeland — some stayed in the town and were killed in the Holocaust — a sadly common story for Jews of the era, but one that we had never before linked directly with our family.
All of this set my brother and me off on a quest to discover more. Both of us have graduate degrees in history; the scent of genealogy was like catnip to kittens. We opened an account on Ancestry.com and began constructing our tree, searching through census data, immigration papers and military records. While I fervently wished our parents were still here to contribute their knowledge and share in the exploration, I was thrilled at the idea of preserving some family history for my son.
Our work is still in progress, but we’ve been able to identify the previously unknown names of some direct ancestors in the 19th century; discover the varied jobs that a great-grandfather held, from toymaker to real estate dealer; and connected with some living cousins across the country and around the world. It turns out, too, that I’m not the only rainbow sheep in the family.
My spouse got in on the excitement, adding connections from her side of the family — an easier venture in some ways, since they have been in the U.S. for a few more generations and have several sprawling Catholic branches. We are leaving it up to our son whether to ever add his anonymous donor or to pursue donor siblings or other donor connections.
And yes, although the defaults on Ancestry.com are for “Mother” and “Father,” the software easily allows one to indicate same-sex couples. (At least one other genealogy site I know of does not do so.) Users can also indicate biological, adopted, step and foster children, and designate a person as a “Friend,” which can be useful in some chosen-family situations. The software could still, however, be more inclusive of donors, surrogates, families with more than two parents and other “nontraditional” family types. It also doesn’t allow one to specify genders other than “male” and “female.” One hopeful sign is that physician and genealogist Stewart Blandón Traiman, according to his blog, gave a presentation on LGBTQ genealogy at Ancestry.com in August, where, Traiman says, CEO Margo Georgiadis told him that LGBTQ issues were a “high priority.” While we await changes, dropping a gentle note with suggestions to [email protected] couldn’t hurt.
We should remember, too, that a family tree is just a bare structure. The stories that weave and whisper among its branches are what give it its meaning.
But that’s an imperfect analogy. A tree is not just branches, but also roots. Exploring my family history makes me feel grounded, connected to ancestors’ lives and to the lands and communities where they lived. In whatever way we can capture our family stories — through written diaries, photographs, videos or everyday objects that have become family treasures — we bring a sense of this rootedness both to ourselves and to our children.
I recognize, though, that my family is lucky. Both my spouse’s relatives and mine have always been supportive of our relationship; there are no branches of our family tree that we want to prune. Not all LGBTQ folks can say the same. Regardless, you can capture your family history in a way that works for you, even if that means focusing on chosen family. Share the stories you want to tell, good or bad — and preserve the memories that you newly create, so your children will have them in their turn.
For me, my ancestors offer their unique experiences while also exemplifying the broad narrative of early 20th-century Jewish immigration, giving my historical exploration a contemporary relevance as our country still grapples with anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant policies. Placing my own queer little family into this broader context also reminds me how connected queer families are to the intersecting web of history.
It is cathartic to be investigating my ancestry in the season when my thoughts turn naturally to family and to those no longer with us. I hope our family stories and connections will be a gift to my son that he will carry throughout his life and pass on to his own children, should he have any.
However you choose to honor and celebrate your family this season — and however you define that family — may it be a time of joy and love.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.