Greetings From Siberia: An Unexpected Genealogy Lesson
I went on a genealogy binge about three years ago.
I scanned hundreds of old family photos and uploaded them to Ancestry, along with some information my mother had compiled. Then I gave birth to my first son, and abandoned the project.
I return to Ancestry a few times a year, usually when I’m working on my memoir and want to find a specific date. But I let my subscription lapse, and haven’t given much thought to my extended family tree.
That changed last week, when I received an unexpected email from a stranger. He’d been having trouble finding details about a branch of his family tree when he came across my photos. Turns out my third-great grandmother was his third-great aunt.
He was emailing to thank me, and to share a piece of ephemera he’d found: a letter written to this shared relative by a man who’d served alongside her son in the military.
My Dear Mrs Cole,
I wish to extend to you the deepest sympathy of the members of this company of your son's death. Walter Cole, was a fine clean cut boy, a lovable and loyal comrade and his bright smiling face and ever buoyant nature will be sadly missed by us all, and reverently remembered as one of those very real friendships, he made us all feel.
Pvt. Cole was one of an outpost numbering some 72 men, that was attacked on the morning of June 25th by four or five times their number, that they were not completely annihilated is only due to the fact that they were all such boys as your son, Walter H. Cole, and the game fight which they put up in holding off the enemy until reinforcements could be brought up.
The end for your son came instantly and there was no suffering. He fought a good fight and died as a soldier should, who holds up his country's honor, and was a soldier, and a son, to be proud of.
It’s one thing to read details on census forms and death records. It’s another thing to see Fothergill’s careful handwriting. How my great-great-great grandmother must have felt to read those words. Her son dead on a Siberian battlefield.
I’ll leave behind a glut of my own writing when I die, if I don’t burn it out of sheer embarrassment first.
I’ve outgrown any sentimental hopes for its future. My sons can toss my journals in the trash, or donate them to a historical society, or let them molder in an attic for all I care. But I do wonder which artifacts from my life will survive me; what possessions, if any, my great-great-great grandchildren will hold with a sense of wonder. Maybe my entire life will be digitized and tagged and saved in a searchable database for all to see. This stranger and I would have never found each other twenty years ago, after all, if it hadn’t been for searchable databases. I never would have read this story from my ancestral past.
I’m so glad he made this connection, even though we’ll likely never meet in person, even though our genetic similarities are marginal at best. These connections make the world seem a little smaller, a little more intimate, and life a little more timeless.