02 December 2009

Mitzvah, x2.

I'm counting this as a mitzvah, because, well, you'll see.

I've always been mildly interested in genealogy, and can rattle off the nationalities of my great-grandparents with ease. Beyond knowing that small fact, though, I've never put much research in to it. I did have an interesting conversation with my sole surviving grandparent - my paternal grandmother - a few years ago about her parents, but never really delved in to the tracing history part.

My most recent trip to Sweden, though, sparked some interest. Everywhere my team went, and I do mean everywhere, our hosts/tour guides/drivers/escorts asked us if anyone on the team had any Scandinavian ancestry. I know by the time we left, even the team members who don't speak Swedish knew exactly what I was saying when I was rattling off my pedigree.

And why, really, haven't I done the research? I can read the records in Swedish, and quite a lot of it is available on teh intertubes, it really ought not be so difficult for me to see where in Sweden and Denmark my great-greats grew up. I don't know why I've never been interested before; but I am now, and that's where this story really starts.

I got suckered in to Ancestry.com by those silly, sappy commercials they're spamming the airwaves with right now. When I had entered the information that I knew, it pulled up the actual pages in the register from Ellis Island that show my Danish great-grandfather and Swedish great-grandmother entering the country. They didn't come at the same time, but I think I've figured out how they met thanks to Ancestry.com. An early 1900s census report shows them boarding at the same house. That website turned up all of that information from me entering just minimal details. It is fascinating, and kind of exciting.

But, if you want real paper, and you want to see some facts that are not sitting in scanned pages on the web, the real work of genealogy research is done by paging through musty old ledgers of birth and death records. Fortunately (or...not so fortunately, considering I don't love Ohio) I still live in the same town where all of my grandparents were born, and where all of my great-grandparents died. So looking this information up doesn't involve anything more onerous than dealing with the county courthouse and vital records divisions.

When I worked for Ye Olde Evile Bank, doing estate work, I did a lot of running to fetch death certificates in more than one Ohio county. Now I know I'm getting older, and I know that the nuts-and-bolts details of what I did every day at the bank are no longer sitting in my memory, but I don't remember it being this much of a hassle. Ever.

On Monday this week, I went to the Vital Statistics office. It is currently located in a big building that housed a hospital, once upon a time. It still smells like a hospital. My Grandpa H died there; unpleasant memories assault me every time I go in there. I got through the rabbit-warren of county offices that now call the decommissioned hospital home, and found them with ease. I filled out the form, stepped up to the window...and saw the signs that they don't take personal checks as payment for death certificates. Nor do they take credit cards. Debit cards are likewise verboten. And Uncle State of Ohio has raised the fees; birth and death certificates now cost $23. Highway robbery!!

Cash. Period. That is the only form of payment they accept from walk-ins. I KNOW Ye Olde Evile didn't give me cash. The Estates & Trusts department didn't handle cash. We didn't have petty cash, we didn't accept cash deposits. So how did I pay for those death certs? (Which used to cost $7, BTW.) I don't remember how I did it; maybe I put it on my expense reports?

Anyway, I was massively irked. I came to this place that I don't like, excited about getting some new info (I was hoping for the names of my great-grandparent's parents on their death certificates, y'know, the Swedish and Danish ones) and I had to leave with nothing, because I didn't have $46 in cash on me. Grr.

I try really hard, really I do, to not be frustrated with clerks in retail stores or government offices, even when I'm at my boiling point, because it is never the "fault" of the person in front of you that you can't do what you want to; it is policy, and my own ignorance for not making myself aware of said policy that caused my irritation. I never want to be the customer that they talk about at the dinner table, or the customer that drove them to drink.

That said, I was pissed at the Vital Statistics office. And confused; the way the woman told me that they don't take checks or credit cards didn't make logical sense to me. She said, "We don't take checks or credit cards at the window." And I couldn't figure out what she meant. They only accepted cash? Really? Did I miss something and the world of ubiquitous debit cards vanished? Later, I understood what she meant; you can use a check or a credit card if you request your death certificates via mail or via their automatic telephone requisition. Duuuh. But standing there, in front of her, at that moment, I was mad and confused. I wasn't nasty; but it was clear that I was annoyed. I huffed all the way back to the car.

Today, I went back, sheepishly, with cash in hand and a request for just one death certificate; I only really want the one of my Swedish great-grandmother, especially at $23 bucks a pop. I had called their voice mail system, and the message says that they open their archives to the public - by appointment - and you can look at the records without giving them a cent. I'd like to have a look at all of them, the death certificates of my grandparents, my great aunts and uncles, even possibly the birth certificates of that generation who were born here in town. There's all sorts of tiny bits of info in that official paperwork, clues, like names and possibly birthplace names.

I know the woman at the vital statistics counter remembered me. I'm embarrassed that I was so irritated with her the other day. She took my $23, got me a copy of my great-grandmother's death certificate (with the names of my great-great-grandparents listed, woot!) and was really nice. Nicer than she needed to be. When she brought me the paper, she apologized for taking so long, because she couldn't get the first few copies to be clear, and she wanted to make sure it was legible for my research. Wow. Now I really feel like a heel.

So to make up for my idiocy the other day, I thanked her profusely. She asked a bunch of questions about my search, and I enthusiastically shared what I've found and what I'm still looking for. I told her some family story that made her laugh, and she thanked me for sharing. That's my mitzvah of the day. Making the vital statistics lady's day a little brighter, and maybe being the customer that she tells a happy story about at the dinner table, instead of the "OMG, you're never going to believe this idiot that I had today" story.

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