Genealogical Serendipity

  © 2006 Jane Pisciottoli Papa  


     Why can’t I be like Marcia? Everything she touches turns to genealogical gold. It isn’t that she meets her objectives and climbs over her brick walls regularly. After all, she’s a professional genealogist and I’m just a dilettante. And I have had considerable success finding my ancestors. No, I’m talking about the way her research takes on a life of its own. It’s as if an unseen power guides her work in ways that are too amazing for many of us to accept as a series of coincidences. I get goose bumps just thinking about the seemingly supernatural aspects of her work.

   When Marcia makes Internet postings of her genealogical interests she gets responses from long lost relatives who invite her to visit them in Italy. When she visits ancestral towns people appear out of nowhere to open “permanently closed” churches for her to visit. The custodian of the church volunteers to let her see the ancient sacramental registers.

   My comparable experiences are so un-serendipitous one might almost posit the existence of the opposite kind of force. What is the word for that? When I make Internet postings nobody answers them. When I try to respond to other people’s offerings I find their email address has changed or their WebPage “cannot be displayed”. When I send out copies of my research to known distant relatives for suggestions and updating they fail to reply or else they answer “That’s interesting.” Period. The one person I made contact with who shared my enthusiasm for our mutual family died a few months after we’d connected. When I visit an office of vital records in Italy I am informed by the clerk that the records are somewhere offsite in disarray in big dusty boxes and that he is not going to look through them, not now and not ever. When a family friend who claims to have an inside connection pushes the matter we receive “fanciful” records – the mother was apparently three years old when she had the child, and so forth. When I write to the archives in Italy I get military records for someone else’s great grandfather.

   I plug away at research - looking through microfilms of vital records, reading books of background information, studying maps and censuses, talking to people - and generally meet with success. But why can’t I have the thrill of some dramatic encounter, some unforeseeable unfolding of events, some sort of intrigue?


   Recently I have begun to look at things differently. Last June I responded to a posting in our very own Lo Specchio by a new member. I instantly recognized her research target surnames as coming from Cassano allo Ionio, one of the towns that I have been researching extensively, and I sought to connect with her to offer the resources of my database. She had just begun her work and had found that there were many atypical situations in her family that would make progress difficult. Believing that two heads are truly better than one, we began meeting weekly at various records repositories and libraries to strategize, as well as individually reading microfilms, books, and websites. Slowly but most surely we have been putting together a picture of her family’s  past. We located the most unlikely burial place of a great grandfather. We determined the identity of a previously unknown sister. We found the record of an adoption that finally gave us the direction to follow for her family’s surname. We even identified and located the burial places of some of her obscure Irish in-laws!

   But now I’ve had to face the fact that while I have furthered this project with research activities only, Carole meets with serendipity! She gets responses from her internet postings: people send her copies of her relatives’ funeral prayer cards, offer to look up records in Italy, and in some cases turn out to be long lost relatives. She sends letters by mail to complete strangers and gets warm replies and information on other branches of the family. She even leaves notes on gravestones and gets replies from descendants of the deceased who send her copies of old Italian passports. Where is the balance in this? Where is my “otherworldly” event?

   At last I’ve come to see things in perspective. I don’t have a flair for the dramatic. No one on “the other side” is making my genealogical pursuits resemble a soap opera. But I have the results I have sought and in the case of my collaboration with Carole I have something even better – an endearing and inspiring new friend. What could be more serendipitous?