Friday, April 20, 2012

Genealogy as a Conversation-starter

As we pulled away from Gate G15 at MSP, I pulled out my copy of Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel. Some of you might recall that it created a bit of a stir in the genealogy community when it was published earlier this year. The middle-aged businessman in seat 35A looked over and said, "That looks interesting." I said, "Yes," and explained that I was a genealogist. He actually knew what genealogy is. He proceeded to tell me that he had traced his Visser family back to the area of Sneek in Friesland. How interesting, I thought, and told him that I was flying to Yakima to give a couple of talks on Dutch and Fries genealogy. He thought that was pretty cool. He said he was flying home -- he had grown up in Whatcom County, Washington. "Oh," I said. "I know where that is. I've got some Dutch-Frisian relatives in Whatcom County. But, I couldn't remember the name. I started going through the alphabet, starting with "A," trying to think of familiar Dutch-Frisian surnames starting with each letter in hopes of recalling the forgotten name. When I got to "Z," it hit me: Zylstra. "Zylstra!" he said. "I went to school with some Zylstras." Well, that's cool, I thought. I started to remember more. "I think my Dad's cousin had twins," I said. The guy in 35C says, "I had a friend named Peter Zylstra. I think he had sisters who were twins." Yep, the guy in 35C was a schoolmate of my Dad's cousin's kids in Sumas, Washington. The Zylstras moved from Sioux County, Iowa, to Whatcom County, Washington, about 1920, as I recall. The guy in 35C says, "Oh, then they were the 'Old Dutch'." He explained that, in Whatcom County, the "Old Dutch" came before the Depression; the "New Dutch" came after. It turns out the nice guy in 35C lived for several years in Sioux County, Iowa, where my Fonkert relatives lived. Andy Visser still works for a company in Rock Valley, Iowa, but he commutes back and forth from his home on the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle. Oh yes, about the book: the Zerubavel book is provocative. It's not really about genealogy as we know it, but more about how people identify in regards to race, ethnicity, and nationality. I'm going to blog about the book in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.