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So why do we do genealogy anyway?

Leva & Ova Livingston

The Legal Genealogist is still fighting connectivity issues in rural Indiana (the thick brick walls of a historic riverside hotel mean no wifi for me!), but if one-finger-cellphone-typing will hold up for just a little while, I have got to tell you one thing:

If you ever in your life have wondered why we do genealogy and what good things like the 1940 census can be, I have the answer for you.

It was written on the face on my soon-to-be-93-year-old cousin Thelma in Indiana yesterday morning when, for the first time, she saw her family’s entry in the 1940 census.

Thelma is my grandmother’s first cousin, my first cousin twice removed, and one of the reasons why I was so looking forward to attending the National Genealogical Society conference in Cincinnati was that I would be able to go on west of the Ohio River and meet Thelma and her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren here in Indiana.

I knew what I was hoping to get from this visit. I wasn’t really sure what to hope that Thelma might get from it. But after I handed her that 1940 census page, I didn’t have to wonder any more.

It wasn’t just that it’s a tangible link to her father, Leva Pyron Livingston (1891-1984) and her mother Ova (Winningham) Livingston (1890-1963), and to her brother Denton (1913-1982) and sister Esta (1917-2006). I had showed her the 1920 census (where she’s listed as a six-month-old boy named Thelma!) and the 1930 census as well (where she’d morphed back into a girl) that enumerated them as well.

But by 1940, Thelma was a young woman, age 20, about to begin her schoolteaching career, and much more familiar with neighbors near and far than she’d been as a younger child. On that census, far more than on earlier censuses, the names of those nearby were more than just names. They were friends, neighbors, a boy she’d dated, a child she would go on to teach.

I watched her face as she looked at that census page for the very first time and I saw her eyes light up. “Oh! There’s the Calloways!” she exclaimed. “We used to visit them ever Saturday night. In the winter even if the weather was bad we could go play dominoes or gather round the piano and sing.”

Her finger moved up and down the page, again and again. Another name, another memory, another bit of history recaptured and shared. Not History in the big sense but in-depth, up-close and personal. The history of her family, remembered, and shared with me, a part of her extended family she’d only just met.

We have moved on from that census to the storms of spring and to the problems of life on the dust bowl. We’ve gone from to picking cotton to making dresses from flour sacks. We have covered the distance from going to school barefoot in second grade in Oklahoma to teaching barefoot children in Florida.

But it all began in that moment, with the shining eyes and the gentle smile, and the 1940 census.

And that… that is why we do genealogy and what good the 1940 census can be.

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