It's the first Start Your Family Tree Week here in the UK, so here's a tie-in post!
Why research your family tree? There can be many reasons, but for me it started with a simple question asked of my dad when I was small - who were the Patons, and why were there virtually none of us in the Northern Irish phone book? My father told me he thought we were Belgian in origin, having been told as a small child that his father had been evacuated fom Belgium prior to the First World War. With dad's parents having separated when he was only five, he was never able to find more from his father about the truth of that. It turned out my grandfather was Belgian by birth, but born to a Scottish couple, and far from being evacuated from the country prior to the war, he remained trapped in Brussels as an enemy citizen with his family for the duration.
Yet it was not until 2000 that I would really take the plunge and delve into my tree. This was the year of my wedding and of my eldest son's birth. My initial motivation was that I did not want my son to grow up with a fractured identity as I had done - although I was born in Northern Ireland, as a kid I grew up in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, with parents who separated when I was eight, and who each in turn had parents who had separated when they were young. As a consequence I hadn't much of a clue who any of my grandparents really were - I never even managed to meet my grandfathers.
I spent much of my youth in Ulster listening to an unemployed underclass of people from one religion tell me that those of another were evil without explaining why, and even worse, to the quiet middle class majority, which paid lip service to condemnations of acts of violence, and who were actually more engaged in making sure they were present at church each week dressed in their Sunday best, but simply so that they could be seen to be present at church each Sunday in their Sunday best. I found this particularly bizarre at my mother's church, where the congregation would not sit down until the town's mayor made his entrance just before the service started and sat down on the middle of the front pew, reserved for him. Just who was being worshipped here?!
Whilst I have an in built sense of morality learned from the church which I try to pass on to my kids, and a sense of right and wrong, I am now not in the least bit religious thanks to my upbringing in a country with religion allegedly at its core. So when I depart this mortal coil, I don't expect to meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates, old Nick at the Hotel du Fun on the rocky road to Rogerville, or even his holiness, the town mayor of Carrickfergus. We all have wonderful stories, each of them completely unique and equally as interesting as the next, and as far as I am concerned the real afterlife lies in people remembering who we were - so long as we can present them with a story to tell.
As much as I want my descendants to know who my ancestors were, I also want them to know who my wife and sons were, who I was and who my immediate family were. So my reasons for working on my family history are as much about recording the past, in gratitude to our ancestors, and preparing the tale to accept further chapters in the future. I am not just putting down names and dates, but full blown tales about each person, some experienced at first hand, some told to me by others, some dragged from the records and in many cases painstakingly put together over several years. I publish as much as I can along the way, on websites, magazines, forums, social networking sites and more, to increase the chances of the stories' survival. And I also tell my kids the stories, perhaps the greatest form of publishing at all!
In years to come the name Paton may well disappear, as do many surnames over time - but if the stories survive, it may just have been worth it!