09 January 2008

An increasingly branching and broken tree

My college reunion is coming up. It's hard to believe it's been two DECADES since I did the "college thing." It's also hard to believe it's been decades that I have been researching my family tree. Today a lot of genealogy is online. Sometimes a quick internet search can uncover generations of one's family, but there's nothing that can substitute for digging through the myriad of records yourself.

Last night I spent a few hours at the Minnesota Historical Society pouring over death records. For those who have no interest in genealogy, you would probably rather have your finger nails torn off than to sit at a microfilm reader and peruse death records. For me, it is interesting. There's something about uncovering a mystery, solving a puzzle or making connections that is fascinating. I also learn a great deal about my family and the lives they lived, history, geography, politics, etc.

I have also learned about the effects of divorce from a genealogical perspective.

Once I find a couple that has divorced, I know that searching for descendants in their tree has now become more difficult. Once the parents divorce, it seems to echo down through the subsequent generations. Often times there are multiple marriages and each of these marriages has children. Those with multiple marriages also have spouses with multiple marriages. The family tree doesn't just grow vertically through the generations, but horizontally as more and more spouses are added.

An example that is closer to home is my own uncle. He and my aunt divorced years ago. Both are remarried outside the Church. Their spouses had also been married previously and have other children. My aunt and uncle had four children. Their eldest son is divorced and now living with a girlfriend. My aunt and uncle's eldest daughter is divorced, had another relationship that produced a child, and is now married to a man with other prior marriages and children. The youngest daughter of this aunt and uncle just ended her marriage of nearly 20 years. Only the youngest son is still married.

In other families in my tree, once a divorce happens, even if it is was generations ago, the odds are that I have my work cut out for me finding all the marriages, spouses and children. I don't know all the psychology behind this. I don't know if divorce is brought about by a combination of things, like socio-economic status, religion or lack of it, alcohol abuse, education rates, mental illness, etc. Is divorce a result of these things or a contributing factor to these things? All I know, as someone gathering data, is that divorce shatters families and has long term ramifications on the future marital stability of their progeny's marriages.

Some data reportedly indicates that Catholics divorce at the same rate of the general population. I both agree and disagree. My family is Catholic through and through. I can't find many divorces at all in my family except recently. And, it seems, once it happens it's like a run-away train. Like the example of my uncle. There was no divorce in the family for centuries and then within two generations my aunt and uncle divorced and three of their four children divorced. That's a huge increase, from zero to 75%.

I have also found from digging through the death records of families where divorce is rampant, that many times an elderly parent dies alone. For some reason, instead of dying at one of their children's homes and having the child be the informant on the death certificate, the person dies in their own home and an unknown informant provides the coroner the person's information. Often times, the information is far from correct.

Further, taking the research to the next step is to visit the cemetery where the majority of those in this particular family are buried. In this case, there isn't a large family plot, like in some branches of my family, where generations are buried together. Instead, even though they are buried in a small cemetery, only two members of this rather large family are buried together. The rest are scattered throughout the cemetery. Two, despite leaving grown children behind, do not even have headstones. Only the sextant records record their being interred there.

Even as a person just gathering genealogical data, one can see the effects of divorce on the family.

The worst reconciliation is better than the best divorce.

- Cervantes


Melody said...

I agree, family history is fascinating. I am fortunate that relatives on both my mother and father's sides have done a lot of work on it, and have been willing to share the information they gathered. I am sure that when there are many "broken branches" on the family tree, due to divorce, that it makes the historian's task much more difficult.
There is a lot of interesting information on

Ray from MN said...

I'm pretty much the only person on both my paternal and maternal sides who knows more than their own generation or line.

We have been blessed, until recently, with few divorces. And those divorces there are, generally baby boomers and later, mostly are in the second, third, fourth and "removed" relations. No siblings or first cousins.

I have saved myself a lot of grief by deciding early on that I wouldn't worry about people my age or younger. If people give me the information, fine. But I don't seek it out. Let someone else do that.

I worry about the connection to Europe (Poland and Ireland) and have succeeded in finding, through hard work and luck, the birthplaces of three of my four grandparents.

And I probably have the fourth one, but don't have the proof I really need.

Anonymous said...

Divorce comes from selfishness, mostly, which is the antithesis of authentic Catholic Christianity and the self-sacrifice, as evidenced by the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ who opened the gates of heaven for all who follow him, constantly taught by the Church from His time.

Pray for me. I am divorced and have left that Church. Pray for our children.

Pray for the Catholic Church as well, which is a stranger to me now although I love it.

I am heartbroken over all of it.


swissmiss said...

I've been interested in genealogy for as long as I can remember. Thanks for the link to RootsWeb, I'm pretty familiar with that and a few other good genealogy sites. Just wish I had more time and money to spend on this hobby :)

I'm stuck on my great-grandmother who came from Ireland at the age of six. There is no trace of her in any record I've found so far until she shows up on the census records and already has a few kids! Unfortunately, her name is Lynch, so she's hard to track. I've been lucky with other branches and traced them back as far as records go. I have a few very early branches in the US I'm having problems with.

swissmiss said...

You are very right about selfishness being a huge factor in divorce and the opposite of what we are called to do.

My heart goes out to you. I will certainly pray for you and your family, along with the Church.

I don't know your circumstances, but hope you are moved to return to the Church. There are several wonderful priests that blog. You may want to get in touch with one of them. Check out Vincenzo's blog for a list of some good priestly blogs on his blogroll. You can find him at

Keep praying and ask St. Joseph for his intercession. Just a Hail Mary a day can do wonders. Do not despair.

Ma Beck said...


What a moving comment!

I will remember you in my prayers and hope that you can find your way back.

(I was divorced also, and left the Church for years and years.)