18 January 2023
Blog by Jeremy Balkin, FamilyTreeDNA Customer Service Manager
When I left the ice cream shop with my brother in 1999,
I had it all: ice cream, a new driver’s license, and a hand-me-down car that would in no way be immediately destroyed. Five minutes later, promptly after crashing head-first into a fire hydrant so directly that my hood was now in the shape of a concave fire hydrant, I started to question the choice of hot chocolate sauce that had now painted both of our faces. Also blood. There was real blood.
I was understandably shaken and upset, having only driven for a week. It wasn’t until my mom took me home and left me there with my grandma to watch over me for the evening that I was able to decompress and settle down. Unlike myself and everyone else, Grandma wasn’t panicked or upset with me. She’d seen enough in her life up to that point to know that a teenage fender bender with an inanimate object wasn’t going to ruin her night. She got me some snacks, sat me in front of the TV, and we watched the Don Cheadle-starring, made-for-TV movie, Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault. The fact that I remember the entire title of this movie that you’ve never heard of speaks to how vividly this night sticks out for me.
While I could spend the rest of this article writing about how unexpectedly good the movie was, the reviews speak for themselves—I’d rather go on about a person who no longer can. And being that November was National Family Stories Month and December 23rd is National Roots Day, I thought this was the perfect time to share how my genealogy journey began while honoring a woman I loved dearly.
My grandma passed away a few months ago. I never realized how much I truly admired and looked up to her. I’d always taken her for granted as the poised, intelligent, funny, and thoughtful matriarch of the family. It’s a cliche to romanticize those who have passed. We say they had a kind heart, that they always found the good in people, and that they only talked nicely of others. She was the reason for this cliche.
Our family home was condemned due to mold. I, like the agreeable and fun-loving teenager I was, refused to leave and was in denial. I didn’t want to move into a hotel. More specifically, I didn’t want to room with my two siblings. I love them. I also love sleep and privacy. I played the only card I had: my grandparents. While my family stayed in that first hotel for a week, Grandma and Grandpa let me live in their condo with them. In my temporary bedroom, I found a family tree that a genealogist relative had recently made. Since the computer there was from 1993 and used dial-up internet, I was condemned to spend my time looking at this tree. It was like a giant scroll that kept unraveling. I was relieved to see my name on it. It was nice to see how I directly connected with so many people.
Ten years later, I joined the team here at FamilyTreeDNA. It was honestly the first time I’d even looked at a family tree since that time at Grandma’s house. Grandma and other close relatives took the Family Finder test. In addition to confirming that she was in fact my grandmother, I also found names on our match lists that I had remembered from exploring our giant tree. One of our cousins even started working at FamilyTreeDNA a few years later.
At the end of her life,
Grandma maintained her signature composure and sweetness. Though unable to speak and in a lot of pain, she made sure to take time for each and every relative and friend who visited. She tried her darndest to hold their hands, smile, and listen to everything we had to say.
Not unlike Earl “The Goat” Manigault from the legendary made-for-TV film Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, my grandma always showed absolute resolve and dignity despite hardships. Still unable to speak at all, she was somehow able to say “I love you” when my son and I popped up on her phone via Facetime one last time. That seemingly small but impossible action encapsulated everything she was and still is.
I love you, Grandma.