I had an incredible experience today
I’m pretty sure none of my relatives on my father’s side follow me on Tumblr, so I think it’s safe to write this here.
TODAY WAS INCREDIBLE.
I was contacted a few weeks ago by a television production company out of DC. They told me they were filming a proof-of-concept for a new reality show about people who research their family history. I said yes, absolutely, I’d love to be involved. We talked back and forth and eventually decided I’d go out to Philadelphia to my ancestors’ church today, May 16. I took the day off from work and got nervous.
When I got to the church, I was lucky enough to beat the film crew. I met the reverend who was helping us out, and he showed me around the church while we waited for the crew. When they arrived, the woman I’d spoken to got into my car and had me drive around the block for a good half hour, interviewing me by cramming both herself and a huge camera into my passenger seat. We talked about my history as a genealogist and how important the church is to my family and to me.
Eventually she told me that someone was going to call her phone and she wanted me to answer it on camera. I figured okay, sure, whatever you want to do. When I picked it up, a man named Michael told me he had a surprise waiting for me at the church. Shortly after the phone call, we parked and went in.
Right inside the door, the film crew was set up. Michael was sitting on a pew and he had me sit next to him. He told me he had something that belonged to the Burns family and he wanted me to have it. He pulled out a huge, old, leather-bound bible that was given by my great-great-great-great-grandmother to one of her daughters (not my great-great-great-grandmother). Michael had bought it from someone in Ohio through an online auction.
This was emotional enough, okay, and Michael and I were both teary when he opened the bible up to the middle to show me the pages where births, marriages, and deaths in the family had been recorded. I’d expected as much because that was common practice.
What I hadn’t expected was that he would turn the page to reveal photos of my great-great-great-great grandparents.
And he turned the page again, and there were twelve more photos of my ancestors. Of the fourteen people in all, I’d seen photos before of five of them. I’d already seen one of the five photos before, in my own collection, but the other four were new to me. I was so shocked!
Michael started telling me how he got the bible and researched it, how he’d found my blog and learned all about me, how he thought there couldn’t be a more appreciative person to give it to.
And all of this was on camera.
We were actually filming a proof-of-concept, but the show isn’t about genealogists. It’s about Michael returning long-lost personal family items to descendants. It was really special that he’d been so invested in my family. He cried as much as I did because it really meant that much to him.
I got to give the whole crew a little surprise of my own - I’d never written about it online so they didn’t know about this. Last year I found some old photos at a flea market with names on them, so I tracked down their families on Ancestry.com and ended up mailing three photos back to two families. I knew exactly how Michael felt. You really do get attached to this other person’s family and it’s such a curiously emotional thing to return something lost to them.
When I sent those photos back, I was very happy about it. The descendants I’d contacted were excited and appreciative. I felt good about it.
I never dreamed that I would be on the other end of it. As exciting and bittersweet as making the return was, being the recipient - and by surprise! - was a hundred times more emotional. I don’t know how I even held myself together. I was shaking like a leaf. I couldn’t stop touching the photographs. I couldn’t stop thanking Michael, and he kept thanking me.
It all still feels so surreal. I don’t remember anything I said on camera. I barely remember the interview I gave before we left the church. I can’t believe that this happened, that all of these people went to so much trouble to give me back something I hadn’t known was missing.
Right now my plan is to keep the bible a secret from most of the family until our annual reunion in September. I showed my parents, of course, and I hope to show my grandmother, but I want to surprise everyone else the way I was surprised.
I’m going to go cry happy tears now and get some rest. I don’t know how I’m going to get through work tomorrow with all this buzzing around in my head!