“You don’t have to know what you’re looking for. You just have to start looking."
I'd been hearing this siren song from an attractive soccer mom from an Ancestry.com commercial throughout months of late-night TV, and anyway, I needed a reason to hole up in the local library: it was an unreasonably hot summer, and we didn’t have air conditioning. I gave in and charged the $299.40 “World Explorer Membership” to my VISA card. I would give up my couch potato habits to “meet my ancestors, learn their stories, and journey into the past.”
Like many recent grads, I was jobless and had a lot of time and energy on my hands at the time. I’d been through the requisite stages of grief about my job-hunt, and I was hovering just outside acceptance when an idea came to me: what if I have Famous Ancestors? I became obsessed with the idea of finding someone to look up to and lean on in times of stress. My plan was simple. First: find these Famous Ancestors. Then: get my mojo back and land my dream job. What could go wrong?
For several weeks, I spent three to six hours a day on Ancestry.com. Once I built my initial family tree, I waited on tenterhooks for the all-knowing green leaf to appear, signifying that there was some lead out there. Most often, it was an old census or something else that I already had, but occasionally I struck gold: a record that gave me a precious nugget of new information, like a parent’s name. Soon I'd developed an all-consuming lust for names. Each one felt like a fix in this new addiction, bringing me closer to my Famous Ancestors, the golden apples of my family tree. I skipped over trivial details like birthdays and marriage dates. All I wanted were the names.
One night I found something: a large boat icon on a tree that shared several family members with mine, meaning that someone in the family was a Mayflower descendant. My heart started racing. I struggled to remain calm, reminding myself that this person could be on a branch unconnected to my own, and I clicked up the tree hesitantly. I took my time. I double-checked names, trying to be ultra-careful; if I found what I’d been dreaming of, I wanted there to be no mistake that it was really mine.
Click by click, I watched the years reverse. I was getting closer and closer to the early 1600s, and finally, I found him: William Brewster, born 1566 in England, died 1644 in Plymouth, MA. Religious Elder of the colonists and passenger on the Mayflower. He was my 11th-great grandfather.
The lineage was clear. I couldn’t believe it: William Brewster, not just a passenger, but a leader. I bellowed for my husband and broke the good news. I showed him the steps I had taken, the lines I’d traced. His eyes lit up and he compared me to a beachcomber with a metal detector who’d turned up a treasure chest. Then I called my dad, who was overjoyed, and proud that this had come through his family.
For me, I was thrilled to have finally set out to do something, and done it. What else might I be able to do, armed with the knowledge of my impressive pedigree? I felt like a new job and a better apartment and everything else I’d ever wanted was imminently in my grasp.
I made my appointment at the Mayflower Society. I climbed the stairs to the second floor office and spoke to its sole inhabitant: a large, shoeless, polo-shirted man who looked annoyed that I’d interrupted his computer solitaire game.
“You brought your family tree?” he asked, reaching for it without looking at me. I handed it to him and stood with my heart in my throat as he perused it.
“This is wrong, right here. Eunice Meech. She’s not a part of the family line.”
“What do you mean?” I mumbled.
“You’ve got it all right down to here. William Meech and Hannah Freeman never had a daughter named Eunice. So you’re not connected to them. You’re not a descendant.”
I wanted to burst into tears. Still, I clutched at some hope. I gestured to his file cabinets brimming with paper and overflowing bookshelves.
“Can I do some research? I just want to see if there’s any way…”
He cut me off. “There’s nothing you can do. Eunice Meech isn’t real. Where did you get your information, Ancestry.com?”
“I should have known,” he said. “That stupid site has everyone believing things that aren’t true. You have to do real research, not that junk. I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do for you.” He did not sound sorry. I slunk out, tail between my legs.
I called my dad, who was disappointed and a little embarrassed; he’d told people at work about it. Knowing I’d disappointed him was the worst part—in my search for my deceased family, I’d inadvertently hurt my living family. When I lamented the accuracy of Ancestry.com, my dad suggested that I call and speak to my relatives instead, an idea so crazy I decided to try it. .
Over the rest of the summer, I called my aunts and asked them about their childhoods. I begged them to send photos, tell stories, give me anything they could remember about parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.
I learned that my great-grandfather, Martin, loved the Pittsburgh Pirates and listened to the games on his transistor radio. My great-grandmother Vera told me about a trip she took to the Kentucky Derby. I discovered that my dad had Scottish blood on his side, and men in his family fought in both world wars. The stories and pictures that came pouring out of my relatives about our passionate, creative, headstrong crew illustrated our history in vibrant color, giving me a sense of my ancestors far beyond anything that could be brought to me by a green leaf.
I never found a famous ancestor. In fact I found exactly the opposite. I come from a line of mill workers, farmers, coal miners, and blacksmiths. But this was more than I’d expected. Could my ancestors working the fields in Ireland have ever dreamed of a daughter of theirs becoming a lawyer in America? And here I was, the first person in my family with a law degree. Instead of looking backwards for inspiration, I should have been looking forward, to the limitless horizon my ancestors chased. My ancestors did, in the end, give me my mojo back. They taught me to go after my desires with courage and aplomb, just like they did. Who knows: someday in the future, the famous ancestor could be me.
Laura Sook Duncombe is a part-time lawyer, part-time YA novelist, and full-time Christian feminist nerd. Greek epic poetry, Sherlock Holmes, and musical theater are a few of her favorite things. Her work can also be found on The Toast.