Monday, July 07, 2008


Over the past seven or eight months I've been engaged in on-again/off-again research on my ancestry. To date I've gathered a lot of raw information, and maybe 90% of it is even accurate. The other 10% either needs further evaluation or is bad information I stumbled across on the Internet when I was starting my quest and didn't know any better. Turns out there's a lot of unscholarly research out there, although why someone would want to claim a relationship where none exists is beyond me; unless, you know, we're referring to my relationships with Mario Lopez and Brad Pitt.

Oddly enough, I thought the Byrnes branch of the family tree would be the toughest one to uncover. A splintered family, not particularly close, and a century after emigrating from Canada... I figured it would be hopeless. Ironically, I've not only been able to trace the Byrneses back to 18th Century Ireland, but I've also discovered that my great-grandfather was the lone Byrnes to move to western New York; the others settled in Michigan, where many live to this day, including two fourth cousins with whom I've recently corresponded.

So the Byrnes side of my heritage is starting to take shape, although if any of you are Irish and from Wicklow or Wexford, let's talk. Also to you Weissenborns, Becketts, and Fishers: you know where to find me.

Researching ancestral names and dates and how they fit into a chart is one thing. It's quite another to know your own family. And that's a subject I was reluctant to broach with my father, the last surviving member of his generation.

Until Saturday night.

In a sense, my father is in the midst of a similar quest. Since the 1950s, his family had slowly dissolved to the point where no one was in contact. Then, one by one, parents and siblings began dying off, until he -- the youngest of four Byrnes children -- was alone, with no connection to his handful of nieces and nephews. Credit where credit is due, though: a few years ago he decided enough was enough, and brought the family members back into the same orbit. That's how, in my late forties, I finally met some first cousins I knew existed, but had never seen... even though they lived just miles away.

Still, I knew this reunion was not without pain. The Byrnes family was dysfunctional, to say the least. Last Saturday night, as we sat on my father's back patio, I learned that it was more dysfunctional than I had thought.

And yet, for once, I pressed the issue, because -- for better or worse -- I am part of this, and needed to know. Now I do.

I now know about the grandmother who had to be institutionalized, the aunt who committed suicide, the major family rift over deceit and money that ended his relationship with another of his sisters, the loneliness, the alcoholism, the jealousies, the head games. I also now know some things I didn't know: for instance, that the grandfather I'd always assumed was an irresponsible drunk was, in fact, a decent, soft-spoken, hard-working, and put-upon man. And that the father I've butted heads with more than a few times over the years maybe has some reasons for being hard-nosed and attempting to stay in control of every situation.

It took me a long time to work up the nerve to ask the hard questions; maybe it took him as long to give me frank answers. But I have a new appreciation for my roots that I'd never be able to get from a flowchart, so it was worth it.