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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Some lessons in life take 30 years to learn

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Until a couple of years ago, I couldn't have told you my great-grandfather's name. Since then, I learned how to do research on family history and it's been fascinating.

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I have always been terrified of the idea that my parents could die someday.

From the time I was little, as early as I can remember, I paced the floor when they didn't come home on time. I stared at the top of the hill, watching and waiting for their headlights. Any time those moments passed without a beam of light appearing, I was riddled with anxiety, always assuming the worst.

Fortunately, they always returned safe and sound and the sick feeling in my stomach dissipated. But my fear of being left behind never went away.

I think that's why I never liked family history.

Hear me out on this. I was young and perpetually scared of losing my parents. My dad was fanatical about family history. He peppered our minds with names and dates and quizzed us regularly to see if we could tell him who some distant relative was. Aside from the fact that I felt like I let him down every time I failed the quizzes, my dad always said we (his children) had to carry on his genealogy work after he died so he wouldn't have wasted his life following our family tree.

"I won't always be here," he said.

Of course, you can imagine how I might have digested those words when I was little. I equated family history with my father's life. The longer I put off immersing myself in it, the more I took my dad for granted (my guilt-ridden 6-year-old thought process) — and thus, the more likely he would die just to teach me a lesson.

But instead of learning all of those names and understanding my family history, I became even more resistant to my dad's efforts.

By then, I was a teenager.

We took a lot of family road trips when I was growing up, including one particular trip to Essex, Mass. I must have been about 15 at the time and didn't pay much attention to what we were doing, so a lot of the trip is a blur.

Here's what I do remember. My sister was on crutches the whole time. It was hot and humid. The town had a lot of "Choate" signs in it — a street named Choate, a house named Choate, an island named Choate. And that was pretty cool, but I couldn't understand what those Choates had to do with me. Our people came from Oklahoma, I thought. We were outsiders in New England.

When we rolled into town, we found an old church where there just happened to be a reunion taking place. My dad made us all go into the church and talk to the people there who were all relatives of Choates. I thought we were crashing the reunion, but it just occurred to me that maybe that reunion is the reason we were there in the first place. I'm not sure. As I said, I wasn't really paying attention.

So we took pictures of ourselves in front of the signs and ate dinner in a seafood restaurant that overlooked Choate Island. I'm sure we saw the Choate house, but I don't remember it. The most fascinating part of my trip was the fact that Salem, Mass., was only 11 miles away.

I almost completely forgot about that trip until I started to wonder where my unusual name comes from, who those other Choates were and whether such a place with streets bearing my name really exists or if I just imagined it.

Until a couple of years ago, I couldn't have told you my great-grandfather's name. Since then, I learned how to do research on familysearch.org, and it's been fascinating. Here's what I learned.

John Choate (the same name as my father) was my first ancestor to immigrate to America. He left England and landed in Chebacco Parish (today known as Essex) in Massachusetts some time in the early 1600s. My family stayed there until my great-great-great grandfather, Ephraim, who was named for his grandfather, moved to Texas in the 1800s. In the early 1900s my great-grandfather Austin moved to Oklahoma to get a better education for his children.

Along the way, there are fascinating names and storylines, like my distant cousin Rufus who was a semi-famous senator and lawyer, and my great-great grandfather Gabriel who was a Texas Ranger chasing down outlaws in the late 1800s. There's also the mystery of how we became Choates in the first place — John's father, Robert Choate, born in the late 1500s, appears out of nowhere to parents with surnames Smith and Deane — that I'm determined to solve.

It make have taken 30 years, but my dad's pleas have finally sunk in.

Now, I just hope it doesn't shorten his life expectancy.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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