‘Pruning the tree’

The Misses Ogle and Long

With all of their ‘lives’ so scattered about, I really had nowhere to run and certainly nowhere to hide. There were papers and pictures everywhere, and in the midst of the fray of utter ancestry I caught my grandmother “Miss Ogle” (no pun intended…) staring back at me. Carefree and young in her photograph, she ‘watched’ as I rifled through my great ‘genealogical reduction.’ Her gaze appeared to crisscross over all those lives, and over the hodgepodge of paperwork connecting me to a host of pilgrims and witches … and other assorted knuckleheads. From her grainy Kodak vantage point, Miss Ogle seemed to smirk in humorous disbelief at my genealogical disarray as if to say “Well, isn’t that just the living end…”[1] The only thing I could think in reply to the memory of her long-ago voice in that near-forgotten photo was“Sorry grandma. I need to. It’s time.”


And so there I was, in all my ‘genealogical straits,’ with those dang papers spread about. Good Lord, why was I having such a difficult time of it? After all, none of the items were of critical importance or a priceless relic. Why then did they all feel so very important? Most of “it” was nothing more than tedious duplication: photocopied book pages clinging to ancient newspaper clippings, typed 1910s correspondence to someone’s congressman, and a bunch of family history inquiries contained in circa 2001 Hal, Do you read me? emails.[2] Yet here it was, {much of} my genealogical work strewn in with a mass of family and strangers interleaved with obituaries of people somebody else once knew. The conversation(s) in my head varied between How can you even think of throwing these things out? and What the heck have I been keeping these things for?

Woven in among these various extracts were “the proofs” that had helped me verify five patriots for my mother’s membership in the D.A.R., and breadcrumbs to the only gateway ancestor who might ever give me the slightest chance of membership in the Royal Bastards.[3] (I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Royal Bastard?) And there, too, were my grandmother’s things (believe me, she keeps watch…): she, with her verification(s) of Mayflower descent. Did she have any idea what it took to join the GSMD or keep up with five lines of Mayflower ancestry? (Talk about the living end, grandma…)

Sadly, “pruning the tree” or assigning appropriate value to items in my collection has never come easily for me. (“I am not a hoarder, I am not a hoarder…”) How does one deal with a collection of so many truth-filled things surrounded by so much fodder? How do you assess value on copies of speculative DNA “origins,” or distant family connections from this cousin Larry to that cousin Larry?[4] Does anyone truly need copies of Browning for the royal ancestry of Richard Lyman? Do I really need to prove myself wrong again?[5]

Yet here in this same “pile” were the photocopies of the Boston Evening Transcript to supplement my Bruen ancestry; no doubt these were the same ones I surely had to bribe a public official way back when to get. Aren’t they still of value? What about the Patten Genealogy?[6] I’d waited so long for the inter-library loan of that book just to photocopy those few pages linking my maternal grandfather to early New England. And what about those darn ‘inherited’ pieces, those family data sheets that Cousin Barbara so painstakingly prepared back in ‘81? You know, the ones that must have been done on some facsimile of a Commodore 64? Was I supposed to just chuck it all out? (Okay, dead people, you can speak up anytime now…)

This all becomes relevant in that I am getting way old and we (my wife and I) are considering a move to different digs. I’m gently reminded that we need to consolidate our lives. (After all, isn’t what you have and do all online now, anyway?) I guess I’m man enough to admit that my genealogical purge has been one heck of a grieving process, too; you know, one of those “from denial to acceptance” sorts of things. It’s a reluctant truth that my thirty-plus-year collection of genealogical work” might not be the best candidate for the unfettered lifestyle; I do “get it.” After all, who really needs a hard copy of Cemeteries of Allen County, Kansas on the nightstand? It seems it’s time for a lot of the old books (and old people) to find a new home and move on. (Hey, smile because it happened, right?)

[My] genealogical purge has been one heck of a grieving process…

I think one of the worst parts of all this living end business, though, is the photographs. Yes, all those unnamed and undated pictures clinging to the edges of cellophaned black pages. I don’t know about you, but it’s damn hard figuring out just what to do with Aunt Nila’s pictures of her vacation at the Continental Divide. Just how many 1934 baby pictures of Cousin Dolores does anyone need? Certainly Cousin Dolores’s family must have their own and, truly, nobody has heard from that branch of the clan since the 60s. (How do you know ‘they’ won’t show up looking for those baby pictures someday?) So, again, my friends, what exactly am I keeping them for? Some oddball eventuality or some hoarding uncertainty? Egads!

In the middle of this family history triage zone, though, there is something that can’t be seen. (No, not you, grandma…) It can’t be chucked, shredded, or discarded. It’s our passion for all things vital. It surely isn’t the idea or even the appearance that we do genealogical work solely for ourselves because, well, that wouldn’t be true. Certainly genealogy and the accoutrements we amass are “the proofs” in which we all can take great pride. In that respect, it does become very personal. However, like some wise guy way back when said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”[7] I think this maxim holds up in the study of genealogy, too. We often work on our way through genealogy via a process of elimination to reach the truth. We do this not only for ourselves, but amass “all this paper” with the hope that the truth behind it (and the falsehoods we eliminated) will matter to those who come after us. (And, no, devotion to it all isn’t found online.)

So I am proud to report to you that I am making some progress. I’ve donated my hard copies of the Hoyt and Burr genealogies to charity, but have secreted away my copy of a Genealogical record of the descendants of David Sage. (I have my limits!) I have “chucked” many of those 2001 Hal, Do you read me? emails. However, I will admit to having retained a few messages from a sundry cousin by marriage giving my family a remote and wonderfully unproven connection to the ill-fated Titanic. I mean who doesn’t want a connection to My heart will go on, right?[8]

I have let go of many of those items on the periphery, those inherited genealogical sketches from Cousin Barbara, her notes on the 1880 census and, yes, sadly, also Aunt Nila’s pictures of the Continental Divide. I even let go of some handwritten letters from the 1920s sent by some unidentified woman called Aunt Flora. (Do you hear that thunder in the distance?) I just can’t keep it all. I’d say I’ve made a fairly good reduction, though I can also see by my grandmother’s look in that old picture she doesn’t entirely understand or approve. I have, however, managed to reduce the onslaught of paperwork and “stuff” by a respectable one-third. It seems like anything more would be genealogical heresy, and that’s a crime I am just not ready to commit. Like you, I know all too well that by relinquishing many of these notes I may be chucking the very thing that would have allowed me to play a better game of genealogical Clue with Chris Child or, worse, the one piece of evidence that would have allowed me to discover that I was indeed a true Royal Bastard all along. (Seriously, did you have any doubts?)

And so I hope you will take this particular post as my ‘advice column’ to you and let me wax a bit “Ann Landers” in this Vita Brevis world of ours, if only for a moment. Be careful, of course, but consider what you need to keep. You can’t keep it all – nor should you. However, don’t give into the idea that it can all be found online or that you may just be doing it all for yourself. It can’t be, and you most assuredly are not. Let me just say that someplace out there in the ether your own grandmother is staring back at you from her own version of a Kodak moment. Let’s face it, you may have to answer for both what you kept and what you discarded along the way. To this end I say “Be brave” and don’t look back. We can’t carry it all with us, my friends, but do be of good cheer. There is no way we will ever reach the living end.


[1] Used here as “an expression of slight disapproval,” or for “the utmost in any situation,” per dictionary.com. It is said to be a colloquial expression originating in the late 1930s.

[2] As taken from ‘the voice’ of an anthropomorphic computer called “Hal” portrayed in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[3] A reference to my Gateway ancestor Obadiah Bruen (1606- bef. 1690) and Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain, a lineage society often known as the “Royal Bastards.”

[4] My kinsmen actor Larry Wilcox and basketball player Larry Byrd.

[5] Charles Henry Browning, The Magna Charta Barons and Their American Descendants… (Philadelphia, 1898).

[6] Malcolm Clark Patten, Patten Genealogy: An Elaboration Upon One Line Descending from William Patten of Cambridge, 1635 (Newport Beach, Calif.: Powell & Taylor Publishing Company, 1990).

[7] Quoting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).

[8] My heart will go on,” the song from the 1997 movie Titanic and as sung by Celine Dion.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

27 thoughts on “‘Pruning the tree’

  1. How timely!! I’m sitting across from my dining room table heaped for months with five folders, ephemera, and watches jewelry, 80 year old birthday cards… you know what I mean. But, really, this has been going on for so many months I now can walk by it and not even see it! Somehow that is not the progress I was hoping for!! Maybe I will just buy another tub and tackle it again next year.

  2. Jeff, Thanks for this timely and important piece of advice. You are spot on! I am going to print out a copy and save it with the rest of my critical genealogy collection!

  3. At the risk of adding to your dilemma of pruning, a subject I know only too well. I am not a hoarder either:) But am maybe once more going to add my Aunt (my Father’s sister) who was Mrs.Ogle, became a widow and married a gentleman by the surname Long, hersellf and the two husbands now interred in Stevens county, Washington State. I always read with interest your Ogle remarks but am not sure I remember that a person by the surname Long entered in. However my cousins have the Ogle connection still in northwestern WA. The forgotten corner as it is known and beloved by me because of that connection, with several very good photos of all, willing to share:) Your articles always are read by me, Thank You for this one.

    1. Oops noticed here the Forgotten Corner is the Northeastern one in WA., however from where I live they are all out West, slipped up on that when I typed the above. Sorry about that.

  4. Ah, yes. I hear you. I’m in the process of new floors. That means everything in the room has to get out. I couldn’t bring myself to purge the genealogy stuff but now that I’ve lived 2 weeks without the 3 ring binders in the cabinet, I think I might be able to clear a shelf or two. And I most definitely will be looking through the folders in the filing cabinets to purge duplicates and if there is something really worth keeping I’ll put it in the proper binder. But what about those items that showed me that John was the wrong John? On the other hand, who will open those binders when I’m gone? The guys at the dump? And even if someone opens one, will they understand why/who the information is about? And why I saved it? NO one in my family cares. I’ve tried all the suggestions I’ve read on line about enticing cousins to care but they must not have read anything like that. The only “cousin” who would care is my research partner and we already share everything.

    1. My friend I have found that “shedding” some of the more redundant items has been easier than I thought it would be. My goal has been more to minimize my own regrets about what I let go of over exactly what I need to keep …… Also, I’ve decided having any of these things matter to someone else (or explaining their meaning) becomes just a guessing game. I have a feeling that you will make all the right choices about what to keep, discard, or share. Remember, “Be brave!” Best wishes on the journey!

  5. Greetings from one “way old” philosopher and genealogical non-hoarder to another! I always enjoy the humor in your posts, and I wish you continued success in the reduction of what you can’t take with you.

  6. This is wonderful! Iam currently going through the same process, which also leads me to be grateful for the given advice. My many ancestors are keeping a watchful eye over me too, so I’d best take care.

  7. Thanks for the reminder that at some point we all need to organize the many cubic feet of family-history materials — momentous to minutiae — that we’ve collected over the years into a form that will be usable and appreciated by future generations … and not thrown into the trash bin because its value is unrecognizable.

  8. Enjoyed this very much, and empathized, as I am going through a very analogous process. (However, I will point out that the basketball player is Larry Bird, not Byrd.) You encourage me–thank you!

  9. You touched my heart of hearts, Jeff. The pain of parting. Along the way, however, I realize my real problem is not properly analyzing, synthesizing and footnoting material into cohesive documents that can be digitized, given away, etc. And then shredding and recycling the paper piles ! Im starting tomorrow.

    1. I agree my real problem has been not properly analyzing, synthesizing and footnoting material. Even the old emails. It is taking forever but I’m putting all I know in to research notes. If I think I will really miss something – I transcribe it. When my research notes on a person in fairly complete I put a copy on public trees like ancestry etc. I am the opposite of some genealogist – I want other researchers to find everything I know, to use it and to make corrections.

  10. Wow, this strikes close to home. I’m a genealogical “dead end kid”. 2C1R are my closest surviving. I’ve finally decided to seek out the next generations of keepers — and find if any memorabilia from their line is of interest. Also identifying local history and genealogy societies. At least I’ll have done due diligence.

    1. Good job…our due diligence is all we’ve got sometimes. Best of luck to you in your genealogical journey.

  11. Thank you, Jeff. Your words are the best pep talk I have ever read! So encouraging for this caretaker of multiple generations of family history, the majority of which is pre-computer days!

  12. I had to laugh. My mother wasn’t ever terribly interested in genealogy and definitely not into hereditary societies – except for one. She wanted me to find a line so she could join the Royal Bastards. 🙂

    1. See Linda! I knew you would understand. From what I can tell though joining RB may be well beyond my ken. Darn it anyway! That’s so cool about your mom only having an interest there. She had figured out!

  13. This hit me at just the right time. I’ve started the move to a retirement ‘home’. From a three bedroom and office filled house. How do I get rid of 30+ 3-ring binders of information? A lot of it just fun gossip tidbits from local newspapers of the 1900’s. Is anyone really going to care if several times removed cousin Sally was slightly injured when her horse and buggy overturned? I do, and it hurts to just shred that record. Good luck to you!

  14. Good time for me to read. I always think ‘I am at the end…’ but it never does. My tree is mostly online, but I do have some papers and a few small booklets. I use Archive – a lot! And, in the process of moving once again. At least through the digging, I found out that one of Dad’s good pals at church was (drum roll) a distant cousin! They would have loved that, considering my father’s contribution to the ‘where did we come from?’ question was his father’s response was “Were from Maine.” So I’ve been building all those connections pre-Maine, enough for it to make some sense and placed in reality.
    Ellen Finch Mokler

  15. I’m in the process of scanning and uploading my lifetime collection of records and photographs to FamilySearch and discarding them as I go. Presumably other genealogical sites will also accept and store these bits of information. None of my family will be interested in keeping these photographs and documents after I’m gone, and I think that placing them online will have their best chance of survival years from now.

  16. If I had written this article, the picture would have been of Mickey Moske’s First Communion. Mickey was my father’s first cousin, a veteran of WWII who lived a full life, but never married and never had any children, nor did he have any siblings. Upon his passing, I’m afraid, it was the literal end of the line for Mickey. However, somehow, I have acquired at least six pictures of his First Communion — 5 X 7 studio pictures in lovely condition. They seem to float through my piles of unorganized photos and show up in the most unusual places and times. It’s actually been a little inside joke (of my own) as I open up the photo casing and see Mickey’s image inside, I often holler “Well, hello again, Mickey!” or “Of course, it’s Mickey!” I suppose that one day I will have to pare these down to one … or do I even keep one, as no one will know of him once I am gone. Perhaps I will just leave them all for my children to find as a little joke of my own. I’ve even thought of bringing them to the cemetery and burying them with Mickey and his parents. I’m sure his mother loved that photo! After all, she gave it out to everyone in the family!!

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