Discovering Family History In Front of Millions

A few years ago, my mother discovered a dangerously addictive, time-sucking website: Ancestry.com. She already knew quite a bit about both sides of her family, thanks to relatives who shared information and an amazing album her father’s father left, filled with photos of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, their names carefully written underneath in his distinctive script. Ancestry.com just opened up a door to thousands of other relatives we didn’t know existed.

I like to make fun of my mother (lovingly, of course) and her addiction to tracking down new fourth cousins twice removed. I’m interested in my family history, but not to the extent that I want to spend hours sifting through online documents. Now, I’m starting to think a bit differently, thanks to NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

The show, sponsored un-surprisingly by Ancestry.com and now in its second season, airs Friday nights at 8 p.m. I found it a few weeks ago on a Sunday, when I was too lazy to function and the only thing I was capable of doing was search Verizon’s On Demand for something new to watch.

The premise of the show is to find out exactly where celebrities – including Lionel Ritchie, Tim McGraw, Steve Buscemi and Vanessa Williams – come from. The first episode I watched followed Rosie O’Donnell as she went from Jersey City (where she met some newly found relatives) to her ancestral homeland of Ireland, where she discovered – to her complete shock – that her great-great grandfather was so destitute, he and his family had to live in a giant, creepy looking dormitory where small children were separated from their families and taken to a different area. Eventually, they made it to North America, but Rosie, and viewers, were chilled to the bone seeing the inside of this now-abandoned, dilapidated building.

I had to watch more. I love a good mystery, and some of the episodes were more suspenseful than others. Kim Cattrall’s episode was my favorite, which I watched immediately after Rosie’s was finished. Her mother had been wondering for seventy years why her father had abandoned her, her mother, and two sisters when she was just a small girl living in England. Kim traveled from British Columbia where her mother lives to the Manchester area, where she discovered – to her horror – that her grandfather was a bigamist. After he left his family, he married a young woman and had several children with her, before ultimately moving the entire family to Australia. It was heart-wrenching to watch Kim deliver the news to her elderly mother and aunts, who were obviously shocked and hurt.

The fact that they were willing to share such private moments was astounding. If I had no idea about a certain relative, especially one that just up and abandoned their young family, I would be reluctant to learn the truth about them on camera. I’m a relatively private person, and I wouldn’t want anyone to know my family’s dark secrets. Are these people more brave than I am? Or just so curious to learn more about themselves that they’ll do whatever it takes to get the full story?

After I watched all the available On Demand episodes, I looked Who Do You Think You Are? up on the guide, and saw that the next new episode wasn’t until tomorrow night, when Steve Buscemi learns that his roots in Brooklyn don’t run that deep. I’m excited to catch the episode, and I think I’ll actually record it instead of wait for it On Demand.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s into this show! Do any of you watch? Are you a family history fanatic? While I still can’t see myself sitting side by side with my mother, plugging away on Ancestry.com, I do appreciate what she’s doing, and now better understand her excitement when she finds a missing birth date or a brand new relative.

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Catherine

Catherine is a Southern California based freelance writer, whose work has appeared in everything from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. The highlight of her life (so far) was being featured on MSNBC for a story she wrote on Hello Kitty wines...she knew one day her love of all things HK would come in handy.

13 thoughts on “Discovering Family History In Front of Millions”

  1. Surprisingly, my dad is really into this show. I saw the one with Kim Cattrall and Rosie also. After watching Kim’s ordeal my dad walked away with SO MUCH RESPECT for the woman. (He has never seen SATC so had never really formed an opinion about her before) Just the way she handled learning about her grandfather was so interesting. Also – Dad now thinks Kim is one of the most naturally beautiful actresses he’s seen in a long time. Just a sidenote.

    When we watched the Rosie episode, I truly thought Dad would turn it off (he is not a fan of her) but he watched the entire episode. I never saw the end so that part about the dorm is a shock. But I’m pretty sure it helped Dad form a better opinion about Rosie. (and heck, we found out that none of her relatives are our relatives so that brought him some comfort…)

    My own roots have been intensely documented up until the 1600’s when my ancestors came over to the new world. (oh, hi, Salem witch trials!) And when I did some digging into my mom’s family history, I found out that her father’s family came over at about the same time! She thought they came over in the early 1900’s, not the 1600’s! So, yeah, looks like my family’s been here for a while…

  2. I love that show! I haven’t caught the new season, but I watched all of the first season online this fall. I find family history really interesting. I have info on both sides of my family tree back to Ellis island arrival (mom’s side) and first free generation (dad’s side), but would need to take a lot more time and resources to track back further (I’d like to eventually). I’d also really like to take a recorded oral history from my last living grandparent, and get copies of all of the family trees and birth certificates and things that various aunts have lying around. I find geneology really fascinating. The two main hurdles I’ve encountered to getting more info are lack of slavery records and the preponderence of name changes on my Italian-American side (everyone anglicanized their first and last names!).

    1. I can only imagine how difficult it can be to find answers if the records are missing or there are no records at all! My mom’s lucky – her family came from Germany to Canada, and there are a lot of documents in both locations.

      I also love the recorded oral history idea. I have two grandparents left, but it’s getting harder and harder for them to remember things as they get up there in age (my grandmother is 91!).

  3. I LOVE this show! My family is from the Caribbean and I fear that our process of finding our roots won’t be helped by ancestry.com. But we’re determined to go back and start looking thru records.

    I thought Vanessa Williams’s family story was amazing.

    1. It’s not great for searching out info on other countries. Our family background goes back to British-occupied India, and there’s not a lot on Ancestry about that. Fortunately (I guess), a lot of other countries don’t seem to have super-strict privacy laws and we got a lot of old family records just by calling various authorities and asking for them.

      1. We did actually find out quite a lot. We had her name on the adoption certificate and then found out some other names on ancestry, which led to some Google searching. Unfortunately, we’re only finding historical info for her ancestors, not her descendants, so we know how she came to be, but not much about what happened to her after she gave up the baby. At the very least I now know my children’s genetic background.

  4. I wrote a piece for Persephone a few weeks back about this very thing. You can find it in my posts if you are interested. I love this show. I’ve been watching it religiously ever since it started last year. My favorite episode thus far is the one about Lionel Richie. It reduced me to tears (and I was singing ‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ in my head the whole time).

    I’m my family’s genealogist. I decided to get into it when I was living overseas and really far away from everyone. It helped me to feel closer to them. I soon got hooked. I’ve written small histories on three of my lines so far and still do work when I can get to it. And yes, I have some sordid family histories I’d be embarrassed to admit to myself…but I’d jump at the chance to do a show like that.

    Season 1 is worth checking out. Sarah Jessica Parker and Lisa Kudrow’s stories stick out to me in particular. Oh, and Brooke Shields and Spike Lee…all of them were good.

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