Rude Awakenings ~ Catherine Sevenau

Catherine Sevenau Catherine Sevenau is a writer and storyteller who is out to capture your skittery mind. She's penned three books, compiled numerous collections of family genealogy, and has been a regular columnist in the SUN since 2016. She can be reached at [email protected].


Keeper of the lines

Posted on April 25, 2024 by Catherine Sevenau

Why bother? I mean, really. They’re dead. Who cares about the past, and what difference does it make? However, there are occasions when we do something for its own sake, simply because it’s interesting or satisfying, or it feels worthwhile.

For several years I’ve researched my genealogy, gathering all the historical facts, figures, and tales I could glean about my parents and their kin. Those of us who work on our family lines tend to have an obsessive dedication and curiosity that surprises even us. I didn’t plan on dancing with the dead any more than I planned on having teenagers or going into real estate; sometimes things happen, and suddenly, you are taken over! In the beginning, I knew little beyond my grandparents’ names; then I came across a picture of Grandma Nellie with her sisters. How could I not know that my grandmother had sisters? That’s what started me on the hunt. I spent untold hours on the computer (you have no idea) and tracked down others related to me who contributed pictures, records, and letters. I gained insight into my lineage, I came away with a new love of history, and I found I possess many of the same traits and tendencies of those who came before me.

But what calls us to find the ancestors? It goes beyond a simple curiosity. We’re compelled, as if possessed by something bigger than us begging to be revealed. There is one of us in almost every family called to be its scribe. I’m one of several in our clan’s long line of storytellers. Like others, I too am called to gather and assemble them; to breathe life into them as far back as I can reach. We take what we find and chronicle the facts of their existence: who they were and what they did, restoring their place in the family line. We search for them in the records of public libraries, county records, and weed-filled or well-kept cemeteries. We comb through yellowed newspapers, old letters, and photo albums. In doing so, we find them! And in finding them, we often find ourselves.

For fifteen years I’ve been a member of Find A Grave, a website created in 1995 that chronicles cemeteries and headstones. In these fifteen years, I’ve added a page each for 3,647 kith and kin, and manage over 8,000 total, most of which include pictures and bios. It’s a permanent collection of my paternal (Clemens-Nigon) and maternal (Chatfield-Chamberlin) family lines extending as far back as George Chatfield, who emigrated from England to Connecticut in 1639. It also includes the Sevenau and Marley lines, the paternal ancestors of my sons. That is a lot of relations who’ve departed. I bow to all the cousins with whom I collaborate, who send me pictures, and give me stories; it takes a village to raise the dead and could not happen without group effort. 

I’m blessed to be a keeper of the lines. I descend from a long line of dead people who’ve been part of this country for generations, all who contributed to my being. Gathering my kin fulfills a need in me; it’s part of my underlying drive to keep the family together. I do it for my ancestors; I do it for my family still living and for those yet to come. And I do it because it’s important to me. That’s why I bother.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA