Of course, I should be sitting at my desk working on my new book instead of sitting here typing a blog, and for that matter I should be sitting at my desk working on my new book every Friday evening instead of watching "Who Do You Think You Are?" But I can't. I'm hooked.
It's not that I, like the celebrity guests each week, have vast fields of untapped genealogical oil still to drill for. Most of my ancestry has been traced, some of it back as far as parchment and ink can verify, back to those Dark Ages when there wasn't much parchment and not a whole lot of people who knew how to write on it. That’s not why I watch the show. Part of the attraction is that this show and its well-paced discoveries reminds me of how exciting it is to stumble on the truth. The detective in me admires a good job of sleuthing. Often it's something you sensed was true, or hoped was true, but most often you had no idea, and there it suddenly is, like Sarah Jessica Parker's ancestress tangled in the Salem witch trials, or like Emmitt Smith's blood connection to a powerful white slave-owning family through a mixed-race ancestress who was far smarter than the people who presumed to own her.
As a biographer, I’m in the business of truth, or the closest thing I can approximate to it. Sometimes people who died centuries ago are as ungenerous of the facts as if they bore you some personal grudge for writing about them, and sometimes the most intimate details fall freely around you like autumn leaves, daring you to scramble for as many as you can grab. Having established the documentation—the cames that hold the stained glass in the cathedral window—we now look for the colored pieces which, assembled, create the portrait, or semblance of one, of the person with whom we are so obsessed as to spend years of our lives and bags of our cash writing about them.
While it’s mandatory to secure that documentation, it’s the anecdotes that give bare numbers and statistics the shades and hues of emotion, of life. And it’s these I most delight in.
Before I ever started tracing my ancestry, or verifying the lines that had already been spoken of or bragged about, I asked questions of my elders. While my grandmother was amused to hear her five year old grandson ask what it was like coming west in a covered wagon (she came out from Texas in a car in 1936) and whether she had ever been a flapper (she was a Southern lady to the end, so the answer was no), with her corrections she gave me stories. Luckily I was as much a listener as I was a questioner. Because I listened, I know things about people who lived and died long before I did—not just their birth dates and where they died and what of, but their essence, as it was passed down to succeeding generations. I know the great-great-grandmother of tough Mayflower stock who, alone with her children, chased armed Indians off her farm with a shotgun. I know the misery of my great-grandmother when her Victorian mother made her attend school in a hot southern May wearing seven petticoats, sweat running down from head to foot. I know the sweet gentle hopefulness of my great-grandfather, sitting in his bunk on his father’s rough Oklahoma ranch and penciling thoughtful, respectful, adoring letters to my great-grandmother, always wanting to see her again even when she played hard to get.
I don’t even remember when my grandmother told me about her mother’s garden in northern Texas, planted out front of the broad white porches of the house on her father’s cotton farm, but I’m almost with her as I remember, sitting beside her on the top step on a summer’s evening, so late her sisters have gone to bed and the earth looks black while the sky is riddled with glinting stars. And with her I watch while the fireflies bob and weave among her mother’s flowers, painstakingly grown in a place where water was not easy to reach and had to be carried in cans, one after another, so that these summer blooms could stand in the dark, their colors black as the night until a firefly came near and exposed reds and yellows, oranges and purples, blooming out of the darkness.
“That was so beautiful, I will never forget it,” my grandmother told me one evening, many years after and several states away from Texas. Because she never forgot those fireflies and those flowers, neither will I.