Amy Choate-Nielsen: Learning the names of my family's ancestors helped me stop hating family history and unlocked new worlds
Deseret News archives
One warm summer day, sometime near the end of the 1980s, my family had a picnic. I remember the food — potato salad and soda pop — and the brightness of the sun glinting off the metal roof of the pavilions covering our crowd.
I remember my dad telling me it was a family reunion.
And I remember thinking, "How is it a reunion if I've never met these people before?"
They were all strangers to me — and of no relevance. They were second cousins, five times removed, and I could not understand how these people were considered my family. I was bored and uncomfortable and eager for it to end, and that pretty much sums up my feelings about family history for the first 30 years of my life.
As I've said before, genealogy has generally disinterested and irritated me for decades. It's filled me with frustration and guilt — frustration because it seems like something I should understand and invest in, guilty because I didn't.
Didn't, that is, until another warm, summer day came along, sometime near the end of 2010. That's when my husband and I took a brief, introductory course on family history, and my aversion started to change. We were expecting our second child at the time, a boy.
Neither of us knew anything about our family trees. We knew our parents' and grandparents' names (mostly), but that was it. As our simple class unfolded, we started to take an interest in those names. We wondered who they were, how they lived, how they died. We filled pedigree charts up to five generations back for the first time ever.
That is how I met James Finch Turner, my husband's great-great grandfather, born in 1841, died in 1926. My husband, James Nielsen, was named after James Turner, and I knew instantly that I wanted to name our son Finch, after the James my husband was named for. The name was so powerful to me — such a strong connection to this man who I'd never even heard of until then. It felt right. It felt like home.
It was the first time that researching our family heritage made any sense to me; the first time my interest in family history, a key part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moved away from my feelings of guilt.
I thought about how important my children's names are to me. Just bringing them far enough into this life to be able to give them a name is an amazing privilege, and each time, I've pondered what each name means and how it might shape them, how it might come to identify who they are and who I was to give it to them.
I saw with greater clarity how each of the generations of mothers in my family tree must have felt as they gave their children names — names I took for granted for a very long time, names that no longer belong to strangers.
From that time, I have distinctly felt that my ancestors aren't strange, haunting ghosts from the past, but noble spirits who walk daily with me — both in memory and opportunity, as my life is evidence of the fruits of their labors.
It just so happens that we are again expecting a new little person to join our family in the not-too-distant future. This time around, I started thinking early on about what name I'd like to pass on to the next generation.
My husband liked Fleeta, after the name of my father's mother, who died before I was born. I liked Arizona, the name of Fleeta's mother, who died when Fleeta was young. Arizona sounds like the name of a woman who works hard, who faces challenges, who does her best.
But as it turns out, we're having another boy.
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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