Friday, January 27, 2006

Mental Switches

When you've done genealogy for 30+ years and you have amassed over 7900 names in your database of people you are related to by blood or by marriage, you can react to names seen in the newspaper with echoes of recognition that you can't place. One of my daily habits is to scan the obituaries for family names. The previously mentioned 7900 individuals involve over 1700 different surnames, so after awhile any surname can ring a faint tinkle of a memory.

I have a lot of extended family living in the Austin metro area, so I do find quite a few obituaries in the daily paper that ring that bell of recognition. If the person is in my direct line of family, I can generally place them quickly. It's those related lines that can give me whiplash over the morning cup of coffee as I try to remember where that surname fits into the family web.

One such case happened just after the holidays. A lady named Wunneburger died. Nothing in the detail of her obituary sounded familiar. But I kept thinking I should cut out that item and put it in the folder of things that need to be filed. I remembered quickly enough that one of my great-granduncles married a Wunneburger, but I had acquired a little bit of data on the wife's family and this particular Wunneburger did not seem to fit into that family. I cut the item out anyway, still puzzling over why I felt I needed to hang onto it. I thought I might email a cousin who was involved with the Mobley/Wunneburger connection and ask her if she knew who this woman was.

A few days later, when I was putting some new data into my Family TreeMaker database, I decided to check and see if I had put any additional data in the program that I had not printed out and incorporated into my notebooks. When I inquired against "Wunneburger", it suddenly fell into place. I had remembered the Mobley connection to the Wunneburgers, but I had forgotten that my Lentz line had intermarried with the Wunneburgers as well. It turned out that this woman's mother had been a Lentz, who had married a Wunneburger, and whose marriage I had dutifully entered into my database somewhere along the way. I had known nothing about their children until this woman's obituary came along. The obituary had listed her parents' names, but not her mother's maiden name. Somewhere in my subconscious, the connections had been made and I had known that I needed to retain that obituary for my records.

People sometimes ask me how I can remember all the data I can readily recite about the family history. I'm not sure, but 30 years of research and record sorting and data input have created a lot of shortcuts in my memory. I might not be able to give you a precise date for someone's birth or death, but I bet I can tell you the approximate years and locations of those events for all of my direct ancestors for several generations. At any time, I am juggling ideas for where to look next to find that missing census record or marriage license or grave for probably a dozen or so individuals. And I have little memory flags that go up when I hit a familiar name, telling me immediately which lines they probably connect to.

I've often marveled at the mind's ability to map. I will confess to having blind spots about certain areas, but for the most part I can remember how to get to pretty nearly anywhere I have ever been. And when I am stymied by road construction or accidents, I can almost feel the brain circuits backing up and pondering alternate routes. And seconds later, I might have one or even two viable routes mapped out without knowing how I arrived at the conclusion. It's almost magic and I continue to be amazed at how quickly and efficiently the brain does its thing.

It's the same with genealogy for me. The family maps have been traced and re-traced many times through my memory circuits and the solution will sometimes leap out at me even when I didn't know I was working on the problem. Even though I carry along a laptop and can refer to my family database, my mind will generally have the correct family isolated before the computer finishes booting.

They say that mental activity is the greatest tool to fight senility. I certainly hope that is so, because my brain is constantly running those genealogy queries against my mental database and will hopefully do so until my heart gives out. I'm hoping to hit 101, like Mr. Lane. That will give me another 50 years to collect relatives. My body may be flabby, but my brain should be in good shape. It gets lots of exercise, thanks to my hobby.

Genealogy. It's a good mental health thing.


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