Judging A Family Tree By Its Cover

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ancestrysteps

Out of my blog hiatus I come to tackle an important topic that I’ve seen on many message boards. My hiatus and this topic are closely entwined. Hopefully this reaches many people and changes their hearts about why people do DNA testing on Ancestry.com and then either don’t connect their results to a family tree, have very few people on their tree, or keep their trees private.

My hiatus was the outcome of getting a DNA test back on a family member that turned out to be half related to me. The detective in me focused every bit of spare time and effort to figuring out this mystery; I’m still in the midst of it.

I began with a shared DNA match to this family member and then viewed that person’s tree, created a mirror tree from that info, and made it a private tree. Then I found another match…

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Choosing Family

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We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t choose your family.” I said this very statement while discussing family outcasts in our family tree with a new-found cousin. Good, bad or ugly, it seems we are just born, raised, and no matter what, we are stuck with the family we have. Serendipity played quite a hand to me over this past week, as did the U.S. election, which made me undertake a full emotional review of what or whom family really is.

Over the last two months, I have been working with an AncestryDNA match of mine at 32cM who was listed as a 4th cousin. It was on my paternal side and because I am estranged from that side of the family, I haven’t really pursued my matches on that side. What made this person unique is that he was related to me and didn’t know his birth parents, he was chosen by his adoptive parents.

Using his DNA match results, I immediately found high matches to him, at 1st cousin range as well as an Aunt. I branched out on my tree and added these new family members. Scouring old newspapers and obituaries, I was able to pinpoint who I thought could be his mom.  As luck would have it, I found her. I also found a half-sister for my new-found cousin. I had worked day and night to piece together how they belonged to each other, and how they belonged on my tree. I spoke with his half sister over Skype and marveled at how familiar she looked to me and how much there was a family resemblance on that side.

What really struck me was how open this new sister’s heart was, as well as that of her new-found half-brother. They’ve now spoken to each other and need to figure out how to move forward in each other’s lives, as real blood family. He chose me, an unknown cousin, to help him find his mother, who made the very difficult choice of letting someone else be the family who raised him. Now, they’ve chosen to be part of each other’s lives and mine. As a genealogist, this is beyond thrilling and quite a highlight of my passionate work!

In the span of a week, I went from the elation of finding a person’s birth family to hitting rock bottom over the choice in the U.S. election outcome. I’ve remained professional and kept any discussion of politics off of my professional presence in social media for the entire election.

For most of my adult work life, I have sat side by side with a widely diverse group of colleagues. We’ve solved problems on the job together, celebrated weddings,  babies and birthdays, traveled together, encouraged each other through tough times, and socialized outside of work. When you spend that amount of time with people, you really get to know them, experience them, and appreciate them for who they are, where they come from, and what’s important and of value to them. You see how they treat others, who they associate with, what they stand up for, and what they stand against. If I could choose family, many people in this group would be leaves on my tree.

What I have witnessed on both sides of this moment in U.S. history is how the divide is so great, even real family can’t build a bridge. It’s during the most trying of times, that you see who’s got your back, and who doesn’t. I have chosen to be a safe haven for chosen family and other alienated members of society, and made the easy choice to let some blood family members go. If beyond the likes on a Facebook post, there’s no real connection, no dialogue, no attempt, no common values, and instead a chosen side with privilege and/or ignorance, I choose to be on the side of history that protects all members of our global family.

Virtual Gramma – Look Her In The iPAD!

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As a genealogist, I come across many family migration stories. Several generations ago, many people left everything and everyone behind for a new life; often to never communicate again.

Women sometimes left small children behind, men left entire families, with the intent to one day bring them over to reunite with him. There are many happy endings to these journeys; there are also relatives who were left behind posting in newspapers, searching for loved ones who they hoped made it to the promise land. The heartbreak that occurred would be insurmountable I imagine, regardless of how tough and brave our ancestors were.

If they did connect again, it was through the postal service and what we call “snail mail” now. And the letters traveled on ships and took what must have seemed a lifetime to reach home. And then traveled by plane. I’ll spare the history lesson right there; it took a long time by todays standards. I myself recall buying special air mail paper to correspond with friends who left for Europe after college.

Now for my own family’s migration story which I never could have foreseen. It’s been a year and a half since our small family including three pets (two cats and a dog) boarded a plane for Australia. This decision was a big one, especially in the sense of being an only child and taking the only grandchildren away from their Gramma in the States. She was devasted when my husband had a job offer in Pittsburgh, but this? We ripped her heart out, but we took it with us.

Gramma is with us virtually now. She’s on Facebook and I am a super poster with her and the rest of family and friends we left behind in mind. We FaceTime on a near daily basis. She joins us for breakfast, sometimes lunch, occasionally dinner (during daylight savings) because she’s sleeping on her side of the world. She joined us just today when I brought my eldest daughter to lunch. Good thing I have a great data plan on my iPhone! She is there with us at swim lessons, our hotel stay this past weekend, and we are there with her when she travels to Colorado to see her sister, and when she sings with the band on a night out. Gramma even gets captured in family photos while on the iPad.

PiperGramma

Things you hear around our house:

“Look her in the iPad when she’s talking to you!”

“Take Gramma with you upstairs to watch you play.”

“Don’t moon Gramma and Papa!”

“Talk to Gramma first and then you can play on the iPad!”

Gramma has watched them grow in height and vocabulary and she hears the ruckus of us trying to get them ready and out the door for school on time. She’s there for the yelling, the tears, the injuries (although she was spared of the head getting cracked open on a rock because we were FaceTimeing with her Colorado sister at the time!!) and the living room dancing, plays, and songs.

When we ask our kids which country they like best to live in, the lightning-fast response is the U.S.. Why? Because Gramma and Papa are there. They don’t mention other reasons like friends or places they miss (no offense folks!). And it’s not just because they are family and visited for 2 weeks last year. It’s because they are a constant in their lives and share stories every day. Maybe it’s also the care packages…

Technology is our lifeline and I don’t use that term lightly. It is the bridge between us and family in the States. Our own iPads and iPhones, and all of our Apple products really, are worth every pretty penny. In pennies-per-use and the family glue as a result, these devices pay for themselves again and again. The best thing is being there and we will see Gramma when we travel to the States next month!

No doubt you have your own virtual stories, so feel free to share!

Trans-forming the Family Tree

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You’ve finally gotten your 2nd, 3rd, maybe even 4th generation family tree completed, because everyone is currently living or you’ve been there for someone’s death, and ordered that massive canvas wall print to give as a gift to everyone during the holidays.

Then you get a Facebook friend request from someone who shares a family surname and you figure, oh it’s just a distant cousin by marriage. Then you click on the person’s page. There’s something very recognizable about the person’s picture, although you think she’s a celebrity, so why is she contacting you?

And then, it hits you like a ton of bricks, but oddly at the same time as if those bricks then become light bulbs, and everything made sense… Cousin Brian is now cousin Bree.

This is precisely how I and several other family members were introduced to our transgender (male to female) cousin.

The last time I saw my cousin as Brian, it was almost 2 years ago. Before that, I believe it was 1993 at a family reunion. The time in between was painted like this is my mind: Brian was a successful, intelligent, and dedicated businessman, had a wonderful family with 2 kids, and enjoyed time with friends. I always found him to be off the radar though, which I assumed was because he was tireless in his business as CEO and providing for his family. Our paths sometimes crossed through email and centered on our family’s history. We are second cousins; our grandmothers were sisters. He had started documenting the tree long before I had, and in collaboration with my mom. Once I got the genealogy bug, we stayed in touch on things as they related to our family.

We had such a nice visit 2 years ago when Brian was in my neck of the woods at a conference. My mom traveled up to see him too. It was a warm, fun visit, full of laughter. I remember when we parted; I wished I had known him better as I was growing up because I really enjoyed him as a person.

Today, it’s as if I’ve gained the relationship I had longed for then. Bree is the same sweet soul inside, and is absolutely on the radar now with a very active Facebook page and social life to fuel it. She’s also sold her former company and has more time to spend catching up now as well as documenting her physical transformation from male to female. We had a near 4-hour marathon conversation shortly after I accepted that friend request. I already love my new and improved cousin!

So now that the family has met Bree, either in person or virtually, there’s no difference to her being an important part of our family. This post is not to be filled with the particulars of our family journey or hers, but to create a discussion about how to respectfully address these new members on our trees. We need to because it is so relevant to genealogy, family history, and prevalent in our society.

If you don’t yet know of a transgender relative, it won’t be long before you’ll be making updates to your tree! Some prevalence data might surprise you.

http://www.gendercentre.org.au/resources/polare-archive/archived-articles/how-many-of-us-are-there.htm

As a genealogist, I want to get this right and respectfully handle the update or entry of a transgender family member on the tree. I’ve seen random bits of input from many in genealogy forums, however it’s from the genealogist’s perspective, not the transgender person.

I’ve never heard that sharing this deeply physiological and emotional information with the world is an easy one. Many transgender people just want to “blend in” and not draw attention. Some are visible advocates for the population. And often when the transition is complete, it’s not a mere name change update on the family tree putting down “aka”, or “formerly known as” and picking the opposite gender silhouette.

This process isn’t frivolous or a trend and there is a wealth of thought and emotion that are entwined with the transition process, which in itself has varying degrees.

Transgender people have to go to great lengths just “to be me”. Birth certificate, social security, drivers license, passports, taxes, all require significant documentation to be changed and some states/countries do not allow it. If you’ve been married and changed your name, you already know the cumbersome process, now multiply it by 100.

Once the name change is complete, it becomes a “dead name” in the transgender mind. Just as families may feel the experience is like death, in losing the person you once knew, it’s also a right of passage for this new and true being to emerge. On public trees, transgender people want to be seen as who they are, not who they were.

This poses great challenges to us genealogists, as future generations won’t have the paper trail to follow while using the new name. It also becomes confusing on a tree as those who were/are married may appear as if in a homosexual relationship which is now commonplace in society. If they had children, it would be as if the children had two moms or dads.

Another challenge to getting this right is the limitations of the major family tree software companies and organizations. There’s no transgender option to choose. I dare say, there may never be. Two major players in this space, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are Mormon-run. To get over this Granite Mountain sized hurdle, they would have to agree to accept transgender as an option.

Without delving further into the religious aspects of this, in the meantime we need to work around this to do our best to leave a breadcrumb trail in history from the person of today to the person who biologically arrived on this earth in the past. I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping we can start the dialogue and gain ideas that truly transform the family tree.

Silhouettes with flag

Judging A Family Tree By Its Cover

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Out of my blog hiatus I come to tackle an important topic that I’ve seen on many message boards. My hiatus and this topic are closely entwined. Hopefully this reaches many people and changes their hearts about why people do DNA testing on Ancestry.com and then either don’t connect their results to a family tree, have very few people on their tree, or keep their trees private.

My hiatus was the outcome of getting a DNA test back on a family member that turned out to be half related to me. The detective in me focused every bit of spare time and effort to figuring out this mystery; I’m still in the midst of it.

I began with a shared DNA match to this family member and then viewed that person’s tree, created a mirror tree from that info, and made it a private tree. Then I found another match, added that branch to the mirror tree, and so on…. I currently have about 10 matches and their direct ancestor line created on this huge 1000+-person tree now. I’ve compared centimorgans across these matches and determined how people relate to each other. I’ve scoured obituaries to add as many living descendants as possible. This is in part, an effort to place my family member on the right leaf of this tree. Due to the highly sensitive nature of my work, I made the tree private and access by invitation only.

Of course as I found close matches, I was hungry to see their tree to confirm theories of shared common ancestors. More often than not, I was met with no tree attached to the DNA match result, a tree of just a few folks and they were showing as “Private”, and trees that were entirely made private. I’ve shared the frustration like most people on the message boards and Facebook pages. Why do the DNA test if you’re not willing to attach a tree or make it public so you can connect to relatives?

What I’ve learned throughout this 4-month hiatus is that people are taking the Ancestry DNA test for many reasons. Some have learned they were adopted and want to know who their long lost family members are. Some were never told the correct birth parent and their birth parent never knew they existed. Some people simply want to know their ethnicity and aren’t interested in their family tree. Some have taken the DNA test to help others who are on the hunt for family and either they relate to them or sadly they don’t; the result just sits there on Ancestry. Some don’t know how to connect their results to their tree yet, plain and simple. Some people want to have zero of their personal information floating in cyberspace. There are many reasons, both profound and simple, given the intricate nature of families.

I didn’t realize this blogging hiatus would become one of my greatest purposes as a professional genealogist. Because of this personal family pursuit, I’m getting close to finding a birth mother for one person, and on the trail to find two other birth fathers for matches. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing when we can collaborate and share what we know, but it’s important to realize and respect those who don’t share the same purpose. I encourage everyone when they see that lock on the tree or no tree at all, to contact that person in a gracious way and see what happens; try not to judge a family tree by its cover.

As American As… Ruffles Potato Chips

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Today was Cultural Day at my daughter’s primary school. 10 months into our tenure here in Australia, and I am still learning…

The kids were to dress in an orange shirt to appreciate cultural diversity, or they could wear something from their culture. They could also bring in a cultural plate of food to share with their classmates.

What was I to do? My daughter doesn’t have any orange shirts, except as it dawned on us as we walked to school, she does! Halloween is next week and didn’t she just wear an orange shirt a few weeks ago with a pumpkin on it? Now THAT would be both orange and American, but no, mommy wasn’t that smart to think of that prior to the day. Ugh. She also doesn’t have an American flag t-shirts, well that fit her any more at least. Most of her cultural shirts are from England, Spain, Scotland, and yep, Australia. She is half English thanks to her daddy, but again, that light bulb never switched on. She went to school in her uniform and made the most of it by saying, “At least I’m wearing blue!”

As I stood at the school, it felt like we were at the United Nations with delegates parading in their country’s regalia. Little girls from China in full silk dresses, a girl in an       I ❤ Malta t-shirt, teen boys in football (soccer) jerseys from Macedonia and Barcelona, Indian girls in saris, and kids draped in Italian and Aussie flags. And the food? Trays of Somalian and SriLankan casseroles, exotic desserts, and ham and cheese croissants wafted by me; even our neighbors carried Lamingtons with Aussie flags on each one. I just said 2 words to myself: Parenting Fail.

What could I drum up that would be considered culturally American? Baking an apple pie was out of the question on a weeknight (and hubby out of the country), plus we needed to give thought to potential allergies in the class. It couldn’t be anything that needed to be served warm. I can’t seem to find many American items here, except on my visits to Costco. And that’s just what my daughter brought in today (and sure to be a crowd pleaser), Ruffles potato chips.

All-American Ruffles

All-American Ruffles

Aside from the obvious takeaways here and knowing better for next year’s event, it really has occurred to me as the token American immigrant, I’ve never lived in a more culturally diverse place, than here in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Not a day goes by that I don’t overhear different languages being spoken around me or meet someone who is only first generation Australian. Our nearest neighbors are Armenian, Filipino, Maltese, Asian, and… the token Aussie.

Australia – The Unexpected Bucket List

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I’ve never been one to have a determined “bucket list” except perhaps for the long list of musicians I’d always wanted to see perform live. I’ve steadily fulfilled most of that list. As far as checking life adventures off of a list, well I’ve always let it happen naturally.

My husband reminded me not long ago that I had always been saving my Delta SkyMiles up for a big trip, Australia. I have my American Express card linked to earn SkyMiles on purchases, and well, over 10 years of loyalty (and shopping for everything with that card) I’ve certainly saved enough for a round-trip to Australia. Except that as life and work would play out, we now live Down Under.

I sometimes have to pinch myself that we now live in this amazing country that I’d been saving up for years just to visit for a couple of weeks!

In our short time here, I’ve already become the travel agent and tour planner for our family. Our first big holiday was at a popular bucket list destination, the Great Barrier Reef. I still marvel at the beauty we soaked in at our stay on Hamilton Island, and the vast and precious marine life of the Reef. Due to the environmental concerns that may obliterate the reef within the next few decades, I highly recommend checking this one of the list sooner than later.

Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef

Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef

Hawk Owl, Healesville Sanctuary

Hawk Owl, Healesville Sanctuary

As animal lovers, our family swiftly became Zoos Victoria members and has since visited the member wildlife parks, Healesville Sanctuary and Weribee Zoo. Keeping with this theme, we’ve held a koala at Wild Life Hamilton Island, been to SeaLife in Melbourne, Bundoora Park Farm, and this current school break, we are off to Phillip Island to see penguins, seals, dolphins and go whale watching!! It occurred to me that whale watching would readily be on someone’s bucket list, and here we are fortunate to take a short drive, and a boat out to catch a glimpse of humpback whale migration, as well as the march of the penguins.

Willy the koala, Wild Life Hamilton Island

Willy the koala, Wild Life Hamilton Island

Where to next? Uluru, Sydney, Gold Coast?

We don’t know how long we will live here in Australia, but one thing is certain, this country is a bucket list unto itself.

http://www.theurbanlist.com/brisbane/a-list/the-ultimate-australian-bucket-list For inspiration…