“I can actually recall the moment when I became interested in my family history,” writes MyHeritage member Heather Alexander in Massachusetts.
My sister was helping my then-young niece with a school project. Our entire family was on vacation in historic Newport, Rhode Island, when she was going over all sorts of records in a binder she had for my niece to go through to figure out how to do her assignment.
I recall thinking "What is all this? I know I'm Irish and English on our mother's side, Lithuanian and Polish on our father's side but I've never actually seen the evidence. I've never heard names. I only know that's what I was told...Irish/English Lithuanian/Polish.
Heather, 37, was born in and lives in Massachusetts. Married with a daughter, 9, she was educated in public and private schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is a former credit analyst.
Heather put off her questions for a while, but became curious to find out about those few stories she had heard as a child but didn’t pay much attention to. Her sister, the eldest child, is highly intelligent and would explain things in such complex terms that only another person with an advanced degree in history could understand.
I didn't have that. I would question her a lot, but I grew frustrated with not understanding her answers to my questions and the same held true for our middle sister when she would ask - she got confused.
Heather’s daughter was born in 2003, about five years after her sister and niece worked on the school project.
My daughter was born with a heart defect and underwent lifesaving cardiac surgery at Boston's Children's Hospital. After she recovered, I started to wonder how my ancestors died. Did they have what she had? Does it run in the family? Could they have been saved with the technology of today? I needed to find out.
Heather began by looking at the gloomy side - death records and obituaries. Every death record she found brought her deeper into her family. Every obituary she found provided more family and – sometimes - even where the person came from originally.
Through death record research, she discovered that most of her maternal grandmother's family died from heart issues.
Even my maternal grandmother died from heart issues, that were a result of contracting rheumatic fever as a child. I'll never know if she would have had lived to be an old lady, if she didn't suffer those complications. I was only 5 when she died, but I remember her well.
MyHeritage has provided me with many surprises! Finding living family members on the side I know least about - my father's family!
Her maternal grandparents had 12 children, and Heather is one of many first cousins on that side who are all very close. Her paternal grandparents only had two children and she’s the youngest of their grandchildren.
My paternal grandfather died when I was only six months old, on Thanksgiving Day. My grandmother was one of eight girls.
I was able to discover that my grandfather was a little like me, but on my mother's side when it came to his father's family. He had many aunts and uncles, too! His father was one of 11 children. Some here, some in Lithuania. His father's family had to go through a lot. Especially with the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.
Heather has an amazing godfather, her first cousin, who is currently ill with cancer. He is also Polish through his father, as Heather is through her father. Unfortunately, both of her godfather’s parents died of cancer about five years ago.
I added my aunt’s and uncle's names into my tree (via another site) and, shortly after, was contacted by a relative, living in Poland, of my godfather. The Polish relative – Dariusz Niznik - knew English and knew all about my godfather's family in America. We’ve been in constant contact for five years. He has helped me immensely with my Polish and Lithuanian family. He began the MyHeritage tree first, adding my family names in Polish. He invited me to his tree, which connects through our mutual cousin - my godfather - as well as his siblings.
Shortly after that, Dariusz sent an email with amazing news. He had been contacted by a girl in Poland, Anna Pajak, who had same Polish family as me. I was shocked and thrilled. I had no idea my great-grandfather had a half-brother who remained in Poland. My grandmother also still had a living first cousin in Poland - Anna's grandmother! Through Anna, I was able to learn of even more family, living here in the USA!
Heather’s family is very involved with her research and they provide as much information as they can when she asks questions.
If not for them, and my eldest sister, I don't think I'd have ever been curious about exactly where my family came from.
With all that said, I think my family now looks at me as if I'm the one with the advanced degree. I try to keep it as simple as possible as I know exactly how it feels. We always talk, but these days we have so much more to talk about.
Her other sister recently also took an interest in the family history. She found a family history project that she did in the fifth grade, with the help of their Polish grandmother. She immediately scanned the project and emailed it to Heather.
The biggest treasure was that our grandmother had provided her with photographs from our grandfather's Lithuanian side for the project. One photo was the wedding of our great- grandparents, including the wedding party (siblings of our Lithuanian great-grandfather). A photo of our Lithuanian great-great grandmother was also included. Seeing these photos was just surreal! I was able to put a face to the names that are my blood - we are part of one another!
Heather’s tree – which links with Dariusz - numbers some 2,147 people, but she’s not yet added everyone. Her family lives all over, but mainly in the US.
My Smart Match cousin, Anna Pajak, lives in Poland with her family. I also have family in Lithuania, England and Ireland. I go to England every year to visit my cousins. This year, Anna found me in time and I was able to meet her and her family in Gogolow, Poland, with the help of Dariusz, who served as guide and translator. I've been able to meet descendants of my ancestors in Lithuania, Poland, Ireland and England!
Anna’s family is amazing. We are in constant contact now and I couldn’t be happier.
It was because of MyHeritage that Heather traveled from Boston to Poland and Lithuania.
I stood on the same earth where my great-grandfather was born. I stood in the same church that his wife (that he met in the US, my great-grandmother) was baptized and so many generations before her. I received a blessing from the priest in that church too.
When Heather was looking for Lithuanian records via a Google search, she found a story in Lithuania on how farming records were now available.
I emailed the author, Živilė and I told her that I was looking for my family that owned a farm there and asked her if she could help me (I don't speak, read or write anything but English). She did a story in the Lithuanian newspaper and, not long after, she was contacted by the grandchildren of my Lithuanian great-grandfather's brother.
Heather shares her tips for those just beginning their geneajourneys:
- I think everyone hears the same "tip" about asking questions. Do it while you have the chance.
- I cannot stress enough how important death records are, especially when they list parents’ names and where they were born. If you happen to know where your loved one is buried, call the cemetery and see who else may be in the plot. I've often been surprised to learn that there were four (or more) people in a plot, when the stone only read two. This was because there was no stone when the earlier family members died, and a headstone was only added later. Then check to see if the others were family members, but don't always assume that they were family until you find something that connects everyone.
- Verify and check sources.
- Finally, help others with their research. Sometimes, all you need is a fresh pair of eyes to look at things. I could not have discovered as much as I have without the help of others, and also helping others. I am forever grateful for those that shared their stories of family with me, helped me where there was a language barrier, and spent their own time looking for my living family where I couldn't because of the language barrier.
- Also, use MyHeritage to communicate with relatives who speak a different language. It is the most globally-friendly family tree site out there. Messages can be written in your language, and immediately translated to the other language in the "inbox" for both sides of the conversation! No need to copy and paste into an online translator!
We thank Heather for sharing her story. Has her story provided clues and tips for you to follow in your own research? Share your comments below.