The Well-Meaning Genealogist and The Family Reunion

a featured article by Mariann S. Regan



Reunion with Watermelon in the 1930s. © Mariann S. Regan. All rights reserved.


Luck is on our side these days. My Southern family has welcomed my just-published book about our family history, Into the Briar Patch. Even though the book tackles some controversial topics, they are all right with it. Good feelings abound. They are praising the book and buying copies.

Now we’re arranging our first-ever “First-Cousins Reunion” for this July.  We’ll meet on the site of our grandparents’ original farm in Sumter, South Carolina, where they were settled a hundred years ago in 1912. The farm itself is no more, but several cousins still live on the property. One of them will cook heaps of barbecued chicken from an old family recipe. The rest of us will bring potluck dishes.  Excitement is building.


There are 17 first cousins, with 12 of us still living.  After that, the numbers explode: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, adopted children, spouses, spouses with children from other marriages . . . we get flustered wondering how many will come to the Reunion. Many RSVPs are unanswered. My Family Tree Maker so far holds 242 people who branch down from our two grandparents, and I’m still typing in names and dates.


Do we have an estimate? Enough barbecued chicken for 50 to 100 people? No problem, says my barbecuing cousin. I’m glad he’s calm, bless his heart.


As one of the Reunion instigators, I can spread out some family trees for folks to gaze at.  For the last month, I’ve been busy calling cousins and their spouses and children—many of whom have never laid eyes on me—to collect birth & marriage dates, places, middle names and second spouse names, and anything else they want to contribute to a Family Tree on


Our phone calls are nice and cordial (it’s the South!), but I’m still feeling a bit odd about my one-person survey.  I am the inquiring stranger who is trying not to be a stranger any more—the well-meaning genealogist of the moment, the spectator and documenter, the “lost” cousin who stayed Up North from 1964 to 2004.


I’ll bring these offerings, to show my family that I mean well:


  • A big 24” x 36” Descendant Chart. Three generations going from grandparents through first cousins. Made by Propped up in my cousin’s living room.
  • Register Reports for each first cousin, with their children and grandchildren and adopted children and great-grandchildren in list form. Printed out from, along with extras. [Must buy more ink.] A big ring binder notebook of all Register Reports, with cousins’ names on colored tabs. Everybody flip through and learn who all your relatives are. Bet there are some you haven’t heard of yet!
  • A sign-up sheet for email addresses. I’ll type in these emails on to give my relatives access to our growing private Family Tree. They can go online to explore at their leisure and contribute more stuff: pictures, stories, documents, websites.
  • A new Flip-Pal. Thank you, Caroline P., for the promo code! Family members will bring photos, I will scan them. So easy. [Must buy more batteries.]
  • An iPhone 4S with a great camera. I’ll take a picture of each person for Family Tree Maker, with each name preserved on Evernote by picture number. When I sync the iPhone 4S with Family Tree Maker [must hurry—have not done this yet], I can correct errors on the spot.  Is that cool, or what? Hm. I wonder if Siri can locate any given relative on the tree for us?

As a well-meaning newbie, I’m grateful to all my Twitter pals for modeling how and when to use all these wonderful techie tools and applications.


Will our Family Reunion be peaceful and joyful, then? Maybe. Partly. Hopefully.


In calling relatives for Family Tree data, I have discovered (perhaps inevitably) that certain family members do not get along with certain others. Some are not on speaking terms. In meaning well, I seem to have become a repository of intra-family complaints that some relatives have about others—or as my husband tells me, “You’re the snark vault now.” My lips are permanently sealed, of course. Yet I’ve been active in planning to bring all these people together, apparently with some heated internal frictions, under the July sun. Oh, dear. Let’s have plenty of sweet tea on hand.


One more ingredient exists in this mix. I’ve done some recent research into biracial relatives of ours, descended from our slaveholder ancestors. I’m fairly certain who these biracial relatives were, in past generations. Their descendants may be living now. I’ve shared the gist of my research with some of my relatives, but not all of them. There are simply too many to tell, all at once. A group announcement at this point would seem . . . well . . . abrupt and premature. Yet rumors may be circulating within the family. If a general discussion on this topic does break out at the Reunion, well, hey, just wish us all good luck.


As the Pythons have so wisely shown, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”


When I finish writing this article, I can resume my search for living bi-racial third and fourth cousins. This research has been on hold for a while, pre-empted by Reunion planning. Now, that’s irony.


Here’s what I hope will happen. After most relatives have left the Reunion party, and a few of us old veterans have settled in for the evening, I will bring out some copies of my genealogical evidence of biracial relatives, with family trees and death certificates and census printouts. We’ll see how the discussion evolves.


I do mean well. But I don’t want to rush in where angels fear to tread.




Mariann Sanders Regan is Professor Emerita of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She grew up in North Carolina and has many relatives in South Carolina. She has a BA from Duke, a PhD from Yale, and publications that include articles, stories, literary scholarship (Cornell University Press), and a novel. Her recent family memoir Into the Briar Patch explores the effects upon her South Carolina ancestors of owning slaves, given that slavery is an evil institution. She and her husband, who have two children, live in Connecticut. Her book blog is Reviews of the memoir are at




© Mariann Regan 2012

This article originally appeared in the July issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.

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