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Photo Credit: Harry Solomon Soroff

Remember that children’s book Are You My Mother? The image of the little bird questioning a steam shovel is permanently etched in my mind, and the story was likely one of my favorites because I was sure who my mother was. Same goes for my father. I was even lucky enough to know all four of my grandparents, three of whom lived well into their 90s, and one until 103. Beyond them, what I knew about my ancestors was mostly gleaned by piecing together fragments of conversation overheard during holidays or from the romantic, Scotch-fueled reminiscences of relatives. Looking back past the third generation, I was no different than the baby bird.

Mapping one’s genealogy has never been easier, thanks in large part to the availability of DNA testing and nearly countless websites offering free access to family trees, including the Mormon church’s staggering collection, one of the world’s largest. (For anyone who wants to criticize them for the motive behind assembling their database—namely to posthumously baptize everyone who ever lived—I’ll argue that it’s a magnanimous gesture; the deceased can either accept or decline the offer.) And with the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? (where the family trees of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee are delineated), along with the work of scholars like Skip Gates (who’s applied genetics to African American history), the heirs of Roots author Alex Haley aren’t the only ones making money off of tracing ancestry. So you’d think it would be a snap.

I attempted to find out. What I knew was that my father is Jewish, of Russian descent, and my mother was born and raised in New York and was English/Scottish by way of Canada. What I’d heard was that, on my father’s side, there were some distinguished 19th-century rabbis and Talmudic scholars, and on my mother’s, I was a relation of the English composer Sir Edward Elgar, the 1930s movie star Norma Shearer and the Canadian railroad baron James Jerome Hill. What I hoped was that I was somehow related to Elvis or Mr. T. The truth, I discovered, is both more prosaic and more interesting.

You’ve probably passed it countless times walking down Newbury Street: the unassuming but stately gray building on the corner of Clarendon that houses the New England Historic Genealogical Society. If you’ve ever noticed it at all, you’ve probably dismissed it as a time capsule of official bric-a-brac from the Mayflower, or an ossuary for those crusty Boston families who fuss so ostentatiously over their lineage. At least, that’s what I assumed. I wasn’t aware that the NEHGS shares the building with the New England Chapter of the American Jewish Historical Society, as well as with some of the most extensive vital records—probate, wills, guardianships—covering not only New England, but all of America. They helped unravel the family history of princess-to-be Kate Middleton, established that Ellen DeGeneres is related to Madonna through a circular chain of celebrities that includes Halle Berry, Princess Diana and Mark Wahlberg, and determined that President Obama and Senator Scott Brown are 10th cousins—as are Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (once removed). In short, NEHGS researchers are some of the most experienced, resourceful and dogged in their field. Clearly, a good place to start. 

On my first visit, I took a mail-order DNA test, available to the public for fees ranging anywhere from $100 to $700. The process simply involves scraping cells from the inside of the cheek (a buccal swab). After shipping the samples off to the lab, it was time to retrace my origins the old-fashioned way—by assembling a family tree.   

For someone like me, whose forebears rapidly dissolve into vaguely transliterated names or foggy approximations, the first step was to fill in as many blanks as possible on a five-generation chart. These are available for free at NEHGS, but in my case, I was fortunate to be handed one by Rhonda McClure, their director of research services. A career genealogist, she can ferret out the most obscure familial connection. She would become my personal private eye, indefatigable and relentless, helping me to navigate a minefield of speculation and half-recalled facts. Starting with myself, I filled in the blanks, listing my parents, their parents, their parents and their parents. Ideally, I would have had 16 names in the last column. I only had six. 

On my father’s side, because of his Russian ancestry, the names petered out quickly. My grandmother claimed to remember hiding in a cellar while the Cossacks rounded up the Jews during the last pogrom in Kishinev in 1903 (when, one imagines, official record-keeping for the Czar’s Hebrew subjects wasn’t a major priority). She and my grandfather left Russia in a hurry around 1921 and went first to Canada, where my father was born, and then settled in Philadelphia. What remained of my father’s family (his father’s half-siblings and some cousins) reconnected after World War II, but most of the older names were lost in the dusty mess of 20th-century Eastern Europe. Another roadblock, not surprisingly, was the fact that Cyrillic and/or Hebrew names had to be approximated with the English alphabet. On the upside: Both my grandparents had social security numbers, which meant further clues might exist. But requesting the records involves dealing with U.S. government red tape, which for the purposes of researching this article, is akin to asking glaciers to break into a sprint.

Nevertheless, McClure unearthed something especially poignant for me. As a child, my grandmother would repeatedly tell me that she “used to love to dance,” and that the captain of the Queen Mary had enjoyed twirling her around the parquet. I found this impossible to believe, coming from a woman with crepe-paper skin waving a palsied index finger in my face. McClure, however, located the official immigration entries that showed my grandmother had, in fact, sailed on the Queen Mary on three separate occasions. It was just a few jottings in a bureaucratic ledger, but it brought the memory of my grandmother rushing back to me with a visceral, Proustian force.

On my mother’s side, I was a bit more fortunate in that I knew the names of her maternal great-grandparents. Yet what I’d heard and what McClure could unearth didn’t seem to jibe. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Hill, and she was from Canada. I mentioned that there were supposed connections to the railroad baron James Jerome Hill and to Sir Edward Elgar, the English composer whose “Pomp and Circumstance” is the wedding march of commencement ceremonies. My grandmother referred to at least one male relative as “cousin Elgar,” and as a child, I was taken to see his memorial at Westminster Abbey. Going on what I’d given her, though, McClure could find no connection.

Part of the problem was the sources. In 19th-century Quebec, records were handwritten, often illegibly and with no regard for proper spelling by census takers going from house to house. They could collect information from a servant, a child or anyone else who answered the door. To make matters worse, the language barrier between French and English meant that a Québécois-speaker might render a name like Dixon as “Dison.” As a result, one enumerator recorded an ancestor named Wentworth (a family name I was familiar with) as “Umford.”

Such obstacles make drawing an orderly family tree akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle with warped pieces. Still, McClure was able to untangle some threads, and we got as far as my great-great-grandfather Albert Wentworth Hill before we hit a dead end.

I had high hopes for the DNA test, which, on TV at least, can prove everything from the perp’s identity to the fact that White House interns neglect to do their dry cleaning. What I received was a 12-marker Y-chromosome result that plots two things: the ultimate migration of my paternal lineage and common ancestors within 28 generations (roughly 700 years). Certainly, this would yield a little ornament on my otherwise sparse family tree.

A “haplogroup” is the common male ancestor from whom I and other people in the DNA database are descended. Mine is E1b1b1. Instead of a name, I got a British postal code. But I can now stare down any member of the Daughters of the American Revolution by saying that my family goes back 22,000 years in East Africa, that we’re highly prominent in places like Poland, Belarus and Russia, and practically nonexistent in the British Isles. (Who knows? I might even be entitled to a share of Alex Haley’s estate.) The bad news is that out of the 15 names they could connect me to over the last 700 years, none of them were famous. The even worse news is that I share an ancestor with Samuel Sewall, the judge in the Salem witch trials. In total, the results of the DNA test were underwhelming.

I was beginning to feel frustrated when an envelope arrived from my maternal aunt, whom I’d asked for whatever genealogical help she could provide. It was a sheaf of photocopies of old documents like the ones I’d watched McClure poring over online while I marveled at her ability to read both the handwriting and between the lines. It was painstaking, tedious work. I didn’t think I could do it, although I’d felt a thrill when she found even the smallest link, like the fact that my maternal great-grandmother was born in Scotland, probably orphaned and worked as a servant in the house of a man named Campbell in Montreal. It was like trying to read detective fiction written in hieroglyphics. But I decided to see what I could decipher.

The first couple of pages were airy personal ramblings, but the third page read, in script worthy of John Hancock, “James Hill, son of James Hill of Reading, Berkshire, married to Susanna, daughter of William Elgar of Deal in Kent, at St. Giles in the Fields, 29 August, 1835.” It listed their eight children, and John Wentworth Hill, who would one day sire Albert, was number seven. Reading this made me feel like I’d found and deciphered the Rosetta Stone. 

Of course, I don’t know if there’s a connection with the famous Elgar, but there may be. I’ll keep poking around. I’ll send in the government forms. And hopefully I’ll learn more than that luxury ship captains liked to dance with my grandmother.

Which I think is ultimately what researching genealogy is all about. It’s like reading a mystery where you’re the protagonist, and there literally is no end.