Plan a big project and finish it ahead of time.
The best projects are those you never can finish. The second best are those you can’t hurry.
At first, I only wanted to find out about my grandmother’s father and about my other grandparents: their parents, their siblings, their life. But when i found out about their parents, I wanted to know about their parents as well, i.e. my great-great-grandparents. And then I wanted to find every descendant of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents. And then it just went downhill from there.
I sat at the national archives in Norway and went through old church records. Microfilm after microfilm and microfiche after microfiche with almost illegible gothic letters. When I found a distant relative, the son of my great-great-grandfather’s daughter, it was like finding gold, I could feel the heart skip a beat, and I meticulously jotted down the date of birth, date of baptism, where born, where baptised, relatives present, spelling of names etc etc.
Usually, I was the youngest there by thirty years. The others had grey beards and grey suits and whenever someone almost my age walked in the door, we avoided looking at each other and tried to continue our microwork until one of us suddenly realised he had an important appointment.
The smell of old books and old trousers. The still air. The dim light. The silence.
I was a novice back then (and still am in many ways), I didn’t know where to look and what to look for — and whenever i found something, my meticulously jotted notes were often too sparse, without a page number or with at least three names with the wrong spelling. Many times, I had to go back to my old finds to check something, and sometimes I didn’t even find them: my meticulous notes were wrong.
Occasionally I probably found the wrong person. I have a database with thousands of names: some of them should probably not be there. (Some names I have received from others, though.)
I did find my grandmother’s father, though. She was born out-of-wedlock about 100 years ago: her father was a swedish ship captain who perhaps never even knew he had become a father. My grandmother’s mother then remarried and got another child as soon as possible. My grandmother was dark by Norwegian standard, she looked more like a Greek than a Norwegian; her half-sister was white as snow. And just like in the fairy-tales, one sister got everything, while the other one, the step-daughter of the man in the house, got almost nothing.
My grandmother never talked about her father. She never tried to find him: they told her his ship went down and he drowned just after she was born, and she neither wanted nor saw a reason to investigate further. Or never dared.
After much searching, I did find him: Henrik Fredrik Frisk, his name was. Or rather, I found the truth about him. His ship did go down when she was a little girl. And some of the crew died. But not him. According to the report I found, they managed to save captain Frisk. I couldn’t find any more information at the archives (like I said, a novice), but somehow, after much searching, I found a relative of his in Sweden; a nephew I think it was. He told me that Henrik moved from the southwestern tip of Sweden (Råå) to Denmark, where he married Eva Paulsen and got two more children: twins Lisa and Ole Frisk. He died in Odense in 1938. My grandmother was 22.
When I told my grandmother, she hardly moved a muscle. She said yes, oh, and then went to the kitchen to make some food, like she always did. She was in her eighties, and her mind had already started to have vacant spots; I found him too late.
A couple of times, I have gathered distant relatives: once, I made all descendants of one of my great-grandfathers come to our house. It was interesting. But I also learned that it was the process which drove me: the digging, the genealogical archaeology, the feeling of discovering and putting everything into a system. It’s fascinating to see all my cousins on my mother’s side in the same room, there are some striking similarities — but put all my second cousins in the same room, like I did, and the similarities are far from striking. When you find great-great-granduncles in censuses, you don’t find relatives anymore, you collect information like others collect stamps.
There are probably some Frisks in Denmark which I can call relatives. But they will only be half second cousins. Still, it would be fascinating.
And it would make my family tree even bigger. It started out as a big enough project: find my grandmother’s father. Then I wanted to find my other grandparents’ parents. And then their parents and descendants. And then the next generation and, the next, all the way back to 1500, perhaps! It is a never-ending project. Like all the best projects are.
The second best is the kind where you can’t do anything but prepare and wait. Like growing a beard. It teaches you patience and humility. But we’ll come back to that.
PS: do I come from a royal family? Are the celebrities among my ancestors? Nope. My father’s side: farmers and factory workers from southeastern Norway (and Sweden). My mother’s side: farmers, fishermen, cobblers, teachers from Norway. On the other hand, I haven’t found relatives further back than late 1700s; and if you go 1000 years back you are related to everyone. So yes, I am related to royalty. i just haven’t found them in my tree yet.