Who’s you mama? Who’s your daddy?

by Jen Baker and John LaMont

Conwy Castle in Wales, image courtesy of The Ancient Brit, via Flickr.Most of us at one time or another wonder about our ancestors: where they came from, how they got here and why they came. My family came from Germany, Wales and England and I’ve traveled to all three. Curiously, I made an emotional discovery in Wales – I felt I belonged there: I delighted in repeating town names like Llangollen and Aberystwyth and when I stayed over in Conwy, it felt like home. Why is that? Twenty years later (okay thirty) I researched the history of northern Wales and checked my family tree for the Miles brothers who came to America in 1799 from Wales. I found that the James and John Miles of Radnorshire, listed on my genealogy, were actually inhabitants of what is now Clwyd County where Conwy is! Do we have some sort of ancestral memory that goes beyond DNA?

Many fiction authors write about these déjà vu or dream connections with our ancestors – the covers of these books in the 1970s showed manor houses in the rain, sometimes with scared girls in nighties running about on the lawn. Readers who love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, beginning with Outlander in which Claire Randall travels back in time to confront her husband’s ancestor, will understand this fascination with ancestry. Novels allude to this tendency of the dead to stick around as in Francis Cottam’s The House of Lost Souls: sometimes a house ghost alerts the protagonist to a horrible crime from the past, or an object carries a message from the past to the right person, as in Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum. Or, even creepier, a familial ghost inveigles its way into a character’s life as a controlling influence, as in Sarah Waters’ book, The Little Stranger.

My Name is Memory, by Ann BrasharesSometimes, as in my case, a place sets off an emotional reaction, which in fiction often means a rift in the space-time continuum (thank you Star Trek). This happens to Claire when she’s suddenly plunked down in the Battle of Culloden, and it happens to Carrie, a writer visiting Slains Castle in Scotland, during her research on the Jacobite invasion of 1708, in The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. A psychological rift occurs when those pesky past lives interfere in the present as in My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares, in which one man who remembers being reincarnated before, seeks to ameliorate lingering guilt by connecting with a past lover.

Genealogy librarian John LaMont writes:

These rifts and the serendipitous discovery also occur in formal genealogy, which is pretty strange. Genealogists researching their family histories inevitably hit a brick wall with their research and often wish they could phone up their dead ancestors and ask them for details. While this doesn’t usually work out, occasionally we get the sense that someone is out there nudging us in the right direction and leading us to unexpected discoveries and connections with others.

As a genealogist at The Seattle Public Library, I was helping a researcher a few months back and as we were talking the person next to us piped up and shared that he had been researching the same person! He was able to provide a wealth of information. It turned out the two researchers were distant cousins! Ask any genealogist, and they’ll tell you similar “coincidence” (or is it?) stories.

For instance, I’ve visited cemeteries with no idea where my relatives were buried and ended up walking straight to their tombstones; I made my great grandmother Nellie’s molasses bar recipe and soon afterward discovered the century-old mystery of my great grandfather’s name change (did she tell me?); and I literally felt the earth shake while making my first cold call to a distant relative (it was an earthquake but at the time I thought it was supernatural). Clearly, Nellie appreciated my baking attempt and my ancestors felt I could use some help! You’ll find more stories like these in In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History

At the library, people can use our collections to research the history of a home or a building. Sometimes simply for fun, but often to determine who’s haunting their house or whose reflection keeps showing up in photographs of the house and its windows. To help find your own ghosts, check out our guide to researching buildings and their occupants.

Whether you want to hunt your own ghosts or learn about who’s haunting Ghosts of Seattle by AthenaSeattle, you’ll want to check out a few of the following:

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