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The Only True Story

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In September, for the first time in nine years, I took a month off writing. I spent half of it traveling abroad, and the other half completely riveted by a particular story—a true story, one which I had always intended to get to but hadn’t made time for.

This kind of story isn’t consumed in the usual linear manner of fictional novels and shows. Instead, it’s a vast network of interconnecting characters and events, whose facts you establish in the same manner a detective reconstructs a crime.

At first you can see what happens only in haphazard, singular moments, as if you’re looking through keyholes at scenes without context. But as you peek in on the proceedings at different times, in different places, plotlines and personalities emerge, and those isolated scenes gradually connect in unexpected and poignant ways.

Also, I am in the story. And you are too.

Those of you who share my new hobby will have already guessed that the story I’m referring to is my family history. I’m aware of how dull that sounds.

It’s not, and I will do my best to prove that. But in the mean time you should know that it’s your family’s history too. That’s how genealogy works—there is really only one family history. One vast story. If you trace the action back far enough, all the characters and plotlines connect. 

I always viewed genealogy as the most boring hobby imaginable. The word itself still makes me tired. It seemed like the point was simply to connect the genetic lines, and see if you’re related to Napoleon or Bob Marley so that you could mention it now and then.

I didn’t feel any connection to anyone beyond my grandparents. Even my great grandparents might as well be strangers. And who cares about what happened in strangers’ lives?

All of us, actually, considering how many hours we spend watching contrived dramas of completely made-up people on film and TV. We read thick books about hobbits, spies, and boy wizards. We’re moved again and again by tales of fake people, doing things that didn’t happen, in places that don’t exist.

Humans love stories, and genealogy is essentially a gradual reading of the grandest, most compelling story of all time. The grand story we’re trying to uncover technically encompasses all people, all biographies and histories, and all the ways in which they cross and join. In a sense it’s the only true story, because it contains all true stories.

We reveal parts of the story by discovering and connecting evidence: records, photographs, journals, heirlooms, headstones, accounts of relatives and neighbors, and now DNA. Today you do can most of this from a laptop.

The process of earning new bits of story by doing some mild detective work is absolutely thrilling. Imagine the pleasure of repeatedly solving tough crossword clues—except that there’s only one crossword, which many people are working on in different places, and instead of arbitrary words joining and crossing, it’s the lives of real people.

You begin with what you know, looking through whatever few keyholes you already have, gaining clues about where to look next, building context for what you’ve already seen.

You might begin with a glimpse of a young Scotsman named Robert, working on a farm in Quebec in the 1870s. You learn he won’t marry until age 38, and will spend some of the intervening years prospecting for gold in the Yukon.

His name suggests he may be your great grandfather. Is he?

We will find out, but not yet. For the moment the rest of his life is a mystery.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, a woman named Florence, who you suspect is his future wife, is married to another man who will die young. (Of what? We’ll find out later.) She will be left with three small children—the youngest of whom, you eventually confirm, is the kindly great aunt you remember giving you a toy school bus when you were five.

The middle child will die in France in the First World War. You have a digital copy of his will. It’s a brief note typed on military stationery, containing a single instruction: everything to my mother.

After the war, the surviving brother gives his first son the same name, and he too is killed in Europe, in the next war. You can go see the house they lived in, because it’s six blocks from you.

And that is the most powerful part—the story eventually connects to concrete experiences in your own life. Records can point you to physical patches of earth your ancestors walked on, the buildings they lived and worked in, the items they owned, the stones they’re buried beneath, and sometimes to living people who knew them or their children.

Digital scans of historical documents are surprisingly intimate. In many instances you can see your ancestors’ actual handwriting. So much is there: their vocabulary, their demeanor, their idiosyncrasies. If you’re lucky enough to find letters or journals, you can know what a particular relative was thinking on a particular night.

That’s the haunting difference between fictional stories—even epic family sagas, like Game of Thrones or One Hundred Years of Solitudeand the grand, real-life story discoverable through genealogy. Fiction is contrived, and only to the depth needed to make the author’s point, whereas real life is created by nature, in infinite detail.

That means there is always a correct answer to any question about the facts, whether or not you discover the evidence. Your great grandfather either did or did not get a chance to try a banana in his lifetime. He did or did not cross the ocean. He could ride a horse, or he could not. Not even the tiniest detail was left undecided by the author, because this story was not authored.

The story of real life—up to today at least—already resides, in all its richness, in certain corners of space and time. We just have to find the evidence. You’ll never know all the details, of course, but highly specific ones do emerge, and you never know what twists are waiting for you.

My great grandparents both died before my dad and his sisters were old enough to remember them. Living relatives knew little: their first names, and that they eventually moved to British Columbia and died there. I couldn’t find any record of their deaths or burial in that province.

Address by address, I unraveled what happened. Censuses listed members of their households. Newspapers announced weddings they attended. Army enlistment rolls named them as next of kin. My search had the feeling of tracking fugitives across the country and across time.

One evening, I found the clincher. I suspected my relatives had been wrong about where they died, but I needed confirmation, and a new record pointed to a place where I could find out. It was getting dark, so I hurriedly printed up my document and jumped in the car.

Twenty minutes later, I was lighting my way with my phone between rows of headstones.

I can’t explain what it feels like to have your theory verified by a name and date etched into a slab of granite, but suffice it to say it’s one of life’s great feelings.

Robert and Florence were both there. They had been there my whole life, and even my dad’s whole life, in Brookside Cemetery, next to the college I had attended daily for years.

That surreal moment, at dusk in the cemetery, was one tiny but very moving passage in one tiny sub-chapter of the Great Story. I’m excited to continue reading.


Photo by Roman Kraft

Accidental FIRE October 5, 2018 at 4:52 am

Wow, great post. I too am bored to tears by genealogy and know very very little about my family history. This post gives me second thought that maybe I should dig in and have a look.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 9:22 am

It is famously addictive. I started after having coffee with a childhood friend who was in town for a family gathering. I started a profile on ancestry.com right after, and stayed up past midnight working on it.

Susan October 8, 2018 at 8:09 am

David thank you for articulating so exactly my experience with genealogy Netflix can’t compete with genealogy for sheer entertainment value let alone the takeaway of stories of ancestors who were dropped off by a ship in the fall of the year walked through the woods to their grant with a small child on their back and built shelter and survived the winter to use as motivation when I am wavering in self discipline plus best puzzle ever

Arun October 5, 2018 at 5:06 am

Genealogy- I admit I had never thought of it in terms of a hobby. But reading through your experience of finding out about your great grandparents had me think of the latest novel I am reading – that of Cormoran Strike in ‘Lethal White’. Best part there are no evil characters – and if so they are dead.
On a more serious note I would say it takes a lot of patience and maturity for this to be one’s hobby. But the moment you described at the end of the article is surreal – like one of Sherlock Holmes’ methods of deduction: “when you have ruled out the impossible, whatever remains and however improbable must be the truth”.
Sadly, in 2018 DNA testing often reveals ‘you’re not the father’ in real life but it is a very thrilling prospect to dig one’s own roots.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 9:11 am

It does take some patience I suppose, but there is a certain thrill in the “not yet knowing” too. You do run into temporary walls, but there’s always somewhere to work, some progress to make. And when the blanks get filled in, it’s never quite what you think. I find that endlessly gratifying.

Angie unduplicated October 5, 2018 at 6:09 am

I began genealogy to track my treacherous family, who are best described as a minefield. I found runaway slaves & a Chinese woman, sold by her family into prostitution and trafficked into this country during the Gold Rush. British immigrants, originally from Turkey, literally committed petty crimes to be deported after a family member was shipped to America after stealing bread for his family and wrote back for them to come on over.
The damn-fam are still opportunists who can’t be trusted with an unsecured nickel, but now I understand them a little better and crave more history.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 9:22 am

Wow, that is quite interesting. Treachery is not a good thing obviously but our present-day families really are to some degree products of the layers and layers of parents and family that produced them. My family so far is farmers virtually all the way down, not moving around much, which may explain our tendency to establish humble lives where we were born. There’s so much more to learn though but I can see general patterns in life choices emerging.

chris October 5, 2018 at 7:46 am

How nice to find them there all along. My family were circus related. I found a link to a clown (An unknown cousin of mum’s ) who had been in films and thought I wonder if he is on IMDB and looked him up and there was a man who looked SO like my mum it was like walking into a scifi story.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 9:25 am

I hope there are clowns in my family! So far it’s mostly subsistence farmers with the odd shop-owner.

The internet age has given the amateur genealogist many many more tools. Every platform with names, dates and places can by employed, and once you know their niche or industry, you can make use of the very specific ones, which are often quite deep in their information (such as IMDB).

Sue October 5, 2018 at 8:36 am

When I was in 6th grade, we were assigned a country report. I had no idea which country to choose, but when I told my parents that evening, they suggested The Netherlands as my father’s side of the family had come from Holland to New Amsterdam in 1659, and a relative researched the complete genealogy in the 30’s! Original is in the Library of Congress, but we have a typed copy of our line. Fast forward to 2016…. I had always wanted to visit the Netherlands, so my husband and I went. I discovered a “Banta’s Unite!” page on Facebook and found the name of the village Epke Jacobse came from…some had been there. Through a bit of serendipity, a local man who knew our family spotted us when we got there. He took us to my ancestor’s home and we were welcomed in to take pictures. Gauke also took us to Epke’s church, which is also his church, built in 1500. I can’t tell ou what a thrill that was.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 9:28 am

That must have been an amazing feeling. It is such a thrill to visit, in the present day, a concrete fixture in your family’s history. If a single shot of a church in a two-hour film can give us goosebumps, actually being at an important place in a centuries-long story can do it ten times over.

Dusanka Woods October 5, 2018 at 11:14 am

Great post-David, loved reading it …indeed we are all part of one human family so many don’t understand and prefer to continue the illusion of separateness. For those of us who understand the unity of all life witnessing this illusion is very frustrating. I wonder if the humans will ever wake up?
Thank you David

David Cain October 6, 2018 at 9:35 am

Well we are still animals, and even though our DNA is largely similar, we have inherited traits of groupishness and suspicion of other groups. I think we can do a better job of managing those traits, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of recognizing the genetic relationship we all share. It’s hard to be human! :)

Justin October 5, 2018 at 11:19 am

Man, it’s funny. I check your website 3 or 4 times per week to see if there’s a new post (somehow this is better than being subscribed to get it in my e-mail?)… It seemed like a long time since the last one, and it’s weirdly humbling to hear the story of what you were doing in September. My wife and I are trying to disconnect more, and my eyes welled up reading this. I feel like we’re all so far away from this (connecting to one another, our families, others), yet even just going back a generation or two tells so much about how our parents and grandparents were shaped – they’re lives were important and meaningful, just like ours. Thanks for sharing.

David Cain October 6, 2018 at 9:38 am

The insight I keep coming back to is that even a single life is fascinating — there are quite a few people who have multiple biographies of them and scholars who specialize in their lives. Our ancestor’s lives may not have been as well known as Ben Franklin or Queen Victoria, but they are still enormous and interesting, and influenced the people and places around them. Even though I’ve traced a few lines back hundreds of years, I am most interested in the generation I just missed — my great grandparents.

Jenifer October 5, 2018 at 11:32 am

A friend forwarded this to me and I absolutely love it! So much that I’m printing and including it in my “Read Me” genealogy background files (those with my passwords, file organization & naming convention rationale, etc.) my successor will inherit. And I’m also forwarding to my siblings in the hopes they gain a better understanding of my “hobby”. While they appreciate my work, I think they’ll gain a newfound appreciation reading your story. The description I’ve always used is “people come to life through paper”. While true, your words really do it justice (x 1,000!).

While it’s great you can find so much online, keep in mind, it’s only a small fraction of what you can you find on an individual. While it costs money (like most hobbies), don’t rule out a trip to the area your ancestor(s) settled. It will paint an even better picture of their life for your “story”.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 2:37 pm

The analogy I keep using with people is that even a brilliant novel looks like the most boring thing imaginable to somebody who’s never read one: it’s just a stack of paper with repetitive black marks on it. But those dull marks contain something incredibly vivid and meaningful.

I’m getting a lot of mileage from online databases, but I’m already planning a trip to visit the origin of a few lines (Isle of Man, Isle of Mull, and Belgium) and take advantage of local archives and also locate certain graves.

Heather J. October 5, 2018 at 12:12 pm

So timely! I have always been a bit of a genealogy nerd, as have other folks in my family. My father’s side of the family came from Germany and immigrated to upstate New York, so there is some history to refer to, but the line pretty much stops in 1850.

This week, I got a message from a distant cousin (!) living in France who stumbled upon my family tree and offered to trade notes. He was able to tell me more about what he’s found in Germany and France, as our family was from the German-French border. As a result, different members of our family fought in opposite sides of World War II, which I am sure was a difficult thing for all involved. I am now plotting how I can make a trip to the area to meet my long-lost relatives.

I am so excited for your discoveries, and I’m looking forward to your forthcoming book. ;-)

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 2:47 pm

That’s another thing that’s so great, especially today — you can meet people working on the same project from the other end. It would be lonely work if nobody else was doing it, but it’s luckily a very popular pursuit.

Anna Bardon October 5, 2018 at 3:09 pm

You must write a novel one day David.
Have you done one of those dna tests? I looked them up on the internet the other day and it wasnt too expensive. May do one myself. I did hear i had spanish blood in there somewhere but im hoping for a real mix.
Thanks for the lovely article.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 3:31 pm

I just sent in my sample. Takes like 8 weeks to get results though. I’m interested in the genetic makeup, but much more in how I am linked to living individuals who have public family trees.

Jenifer Young October 5, 2018 at 4:07 pm

Awesome! I used DNA testing to knock down a 14 year brick wall. To others, this may sound boring, but to me… it was riveting and made my year!!!! :)

If I could be so bold and offer a bit of advice?… tread carefully when you see information in others’ trees. That information should only be used as a lead to do your own research and confirm/deny the accuracy. You’ll find most people don’t source their findings, which is unfortunate.

Additionally, these DNA testing companies apply their own “relationship” labels to your matches. Instead of going off their labels, you want to find the # of cM’s (centimorgans (Ancestry)) or percentage (23andMe) of DNA you share and plug that # into the dnapainter tool (link below, but I have no affiliation) to get all possible relationship options. Example: You match a “2nd cousin” on Ancestry at 1182 cM’s… Your relationship possibilities are #1: 88.39% your match is actually a great grandparent, great aunt/uncle, 1c, etc. or #2: 11.61% they’re a half-sibling, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, grandparent, etc.


David Cain October 5, 2018 at 5:21 pm

I’m definitely very careful with other people’s work. The majority don’t even use any sources. I just use them as leads and verify it all myself.

Jenifer Young October 5, 2018 at 3:50 pm

I agree! David should write a novel. Today was the first day I learned about him and read some of his posts. He has an incredible gift with words.

I’ve taken a DNA test and if I may offer a suggestion… if you take one, I’d recommend Ancestry or 23andMe, since those two companies have the two largest databases. While you’ll get an initial Ethnicity report, which for me was very accurate, you’ll periodically get updated reports as they grow their “control” database. The more people they test, the more spot on their Ethnicity reports will be. This is more true to the more unique ethnicities. Those may be lumped into (i.e. reported) in a different region simply because there aren’t enough of them in the company’s control database. So remember, it’s ever changing — in a good way.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 5:25 pm

I did the Ancestry one because they have a big database of users and they link it up to your tree there. It’s getting much more popular, and that means more people added to the DB every day.

P.S. And welcome to raptitude!

Paige October 5, 2018 at 3:59 pm

I stumbled into family history about a year ago and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it! Which as I think about it, shouldn’t have been surprising since I’m a lover of puzzles and family history is just one giant never-ending puzzle. I’m more of an on-again off-again genealogist, occasionally getting frustrated when I reach a dead end and getting reinvigorated when I make a connection. With this post, I’m feeling reinvigorated again. Thanks!

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 5:26 pm

Glad to hear this spurred your enthusiasm. I love puzzles too, and it’s a kind of puzzle with real meaning. I have not hit any true brick walls yet, but I’m content to work on another line if I do till something opens up.

Abhijeet Kumar October 5, 2018 at 4:00 pm

This sounds interesting. It is funny I do not want to look into the past. Not out of fear necessarily, if it was such I would allow it to come, see it in truth and allow it to disperse into the sea. More so, I would get lost, and would have to process it to come back to what is going on right now.

David Cain October 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm

That’s understandable — I have met a few people who just don’t want to investigate it. We’re all curious about different things.

Abhijeet Kumar October 6, 2018 at 3:30 pm

I am always curious. But I also tend to get deluged by feelings. Even if it is watching a documentary on extinct species like Cave Lions or Mammoths. It feels very alive and yet it is all gone. And then invariably I feel relief when I come back to a state where everyday is a new beginning. Of course there are memories, but not strong enough to take away the novelty from everyday.

I also do not watch movies or read stories at all anymore. I love reading and watching informational stuff say something about Jaguars, Tigers, Elephants, or food, or someone’s experiences with daily living. Or watching sports.

valeria Pittaluga October 6, 2018 at 10:37 am

Hi David! As always your posts catch me exactly where I am. My ancient Dad left in March and my ancient Mother is still here, however my sisters and I have been sieving through papers and documents decades old and yes – we have encountered hand written letters and photos…. so on with my story, of sitting in meditation and allowing the gratitude to these noble beings to surface … I wouldn’t really be me if it wasn’t for them, right? So, thank you as always.

Shane MCLEAN October 6, 2018 at 1:39 pm

History is fascinating and it was right on your doorstep this whole time. Great post David and I’m glad you took some time off. We all need that.

David Johannesson October 6, 2018 at 3:11 pm

Excellent. Family history is fascinating. I have spent time as a full and part time professional genealogist (in Edinburgh, Scotland where I live). My sisters remain professional genealogists, but it was me that did most of our own family history. Other peoples families are interesting enough, but there’s nothing like learning about your own. One thing though – there’s a lot of inaccurate stuff in the trees on ancestry – check everything elsewhere!

David Cain October 7, 2018 at 10:49 am

Funnily enough my search will probably take me to Edinburgh! I’m loosely planning a genealogically-motivated trip that will include Scotland (isle of mull in particular), and which will probably start with a visit to the Family History Centre in Edinburgh. I may have a question or two for you if that’s okay.

Brigit Ananya October 6, 2018 at 7:50 pm

Dear David,
Well, I feel the only true story is a story of Love. It’s the experience of Love. And what we truly are is not the body or the mind with all its stories. We are something deeper than that. We already are before we think. Ok, but I have a name for it: the Source of Love.
With Love, Brigit Ananya

Mary Beth October 7, 2018 at 2:02 pm

David, thank you for this post. I am the family historian in my family. I did Ancestry DNA too and have had some adventures with it. My only complaint is that, in reaching out to closely related matches, I have been disappointed in their lack of interest in the underlying family story. They seem focused on the data and not the context. Other than that, I have loved this avocation for over 40 years! Not everyone thinks about it in the same way, though.

Randy Hendrix October 10, 2018 at 4:40 pm

Hi David…great post! I worked on this for a long time with my family but put it down for whatever reason years ago. You may have inspired me to pick it up again. If you haven’t already, check out FindAGrave.com and best of luck with your current project!

Leo October 11, 2018 at 8:20 am

David, this article is great. Looking into my family tree and writing it up is something my siblings and I have talked about for a while. It would be a great idea to pass down to our children, grandchildren etc.

Rim October 14, 2018 at 3:00 am

Hi David, I’m writing this as a comment for this post though it’s not really relevant to it. Perhaps I should have written it in the Contact page – but I wanted it to be out there for others to see as well. Thank you ever so much for the thoughts, suggestions and guidance you’ve shared in this blog. I can truthfully say it is the most useful one I’ve read in the last 5 years at least, possibly longer, and it has helped me SO much in recent weeks as I’ve struggled with various issues. And most importantly with random daily life issues that have the potential of derailing your day/mood/productivity and aggravating the bigger problems. Stuff like the new neighbours’ noisiness (especially the kid’s frequent shrieks), an electric connection conking off, which held up work and involved dealing with recalcitrant electricians, and so on. Stuff that would have had me climbing the walls not so long ago. Just trying to internalize some of your ideas has helped here. I’m now contemplating trying out meditation seriously because you recommend it so highly – have done it very cursorily earlier. Thank you again.

David Cain October 15, 2018 at 10:34 am

I’m glad it has been so helpful Rim. When it comes to well-being, we really can do so much on our own end of it, just by how we receive the experience that comes to us. Meditation in particular is the most direct way I know of to develop the ability to do that.

Rim October 15, 2018 at 11:25 am

Thanks for the reply, David. I wonder if, for meditation, you’d recommend focusing on an image of an idol – I’m no longer invested in the religion I grew up with but there is a particular figure I have in my head at times of need. I’ve tried focusing on my breathing but then I get into worry about whether I take deep enough breaths and too focused on the whole thing. Would be good to know what you think. Thank you.

David Cain October 15, 2018 at 12:20 pm

I have never done any sort of idol or mantra-based meditation. What I always recommend is mindfulness meditation, such as insight meditation. It doesn’t require any sort of devotional behavior or metaphysical beliefs. It is just a semi-systematic way of training your awareness, which has many benefits: better emotional regulation, greater ease in addressing habits, useful insights about oneself, greater ease dealing with pain and agitation, and more

Rim October 15, 2018 at 2:28 pm

Sorry, my query wasn’t clear. I was wondering, since the easiest technique people suggest to get started on meditation – focusing on one’s breathing in and out – hasn’t really been working for me, if I could choose something else to focus on. And the image of a deity was one thing that sprang to mind – I guess because of conditioning. Essentially it is a query about technique. If focusing on my inhalation and exhalation is not working to still the mind (as it seems to trigger anxiety about my breathing technique!), is there something else that I could try? Thanks.

David Cain October 18, 2018 at 5:36 pm

This is probably a better discussion for email than these shrinking nested comments. Drop me an email and I can go over some options.

Lizzie Hough October 15, 2018 at 10:26 am

This article has been hanging around in my inbox and I just had a moment to read it. I often tell my children, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you are and you certainly don’t know where you are going.” The study of history, which can be soooo boring in school, comes alive when you become connected genetically to the characters. Thank you for this post and your enlightened view of this topic.

David Cain October 15, 2018 at 10:35 am

Yes, for me at least, it is this connection to our present day lives that makes history of any kind really resonate. Why do I even live where I live? Because of the choices of my ancestors.

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