Almost every family has a self-proclaimed genealogist.
My wife's grandmother was ours. The old gal spent more than a decade exploring the family tree in a quest for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. She and her sister spent countless hours prowling spooky old graveyards, poring over mounds of musty books and records, following a trail that led from Annapolis to Crisfield.
While I marveled at their perseverance, I never quite understood their obsession - until now.
The power of the Internet has changed the rules of genealogy research and, in the process, turned thousands into addicts searching for family roots. I'm one of them - as my kids like to say, I've turned into a "genealogy geek."
It started during a market research project, when I stumbled across MyFamily.com, a portal that gives those with even modest computer skills the opportunity to create a free, password-protected, family Web site.
Like other community sites, MyFamily.com offers a toolbox that allows you to create an electronic address book, post photographs and family recipes, maintain a family-wide calendar of events, schedule online chats and generate birthday reminders via e-mail.
What sets it apart is the tools it provides for creating family trees, which is why it is host to more than 300,000 active family sites with 7 million members in 161 countries.
To test it, I created a family Web site and started building our tree, a process that requires a lot of history. As a time-impoverished parent of two active children, I had absolutely no intention of driving to the far reaches of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to search through church records or to take pictures of gravestones.
So I did the next best thing. Once I had bugged my living relatives for information - almost to the point of excommunication from the family - I turned to two related Web sites, Ancestry.com and FamilyHistory.com.
The concept of Ancestry.com is simple. It allows you to upload your family tree to its worldwide common database and to search the family trees of others who have posted their own information, looking for links. Participants can contact one another via e-mail.
In addition, Ancestry.com offers searchable, proprietary databases with 600 million personal records, plus information from a variety of third-party providers.
"We expect to have more than 1 billion records available by the end of the year," said Rahn Rampton, director of public relations for MyFamily Inc.
While a few of the databases are free, the really good stuff (for example, 1850 census and immigration records) is available on a subscription basis for about $60 a year. They're popular offerings: With more than 200,000 paid subscribers, Ancestry.com is one of the most successful paid Web sites in the country.
"And unlike other Web sites, our information becomes more valuable as time goes on," said Rampton.
The other sister site, FamilyHistory.com, features message boards called "Surname Communities," where family genealogists worldwide can find people with similar names and exchange information in their eternal search for connections.
Although learning about your family can be a two-edged sword, most of my experiences have been happy.
For example, there was a message from a fellow named Mike Black, who lives in Reading, Pa., and manages the operations of Pennsylvania's Medicaid program.
Black found a link between our families on Ancestry.com, and we developed a fast online friendship by filling gaps in each other's family tree and exchanging electronic photos.
Then, while trolling for information about my relations in the Carneal Family Surname Community, I got a gracious e-mail from Marcia Carneal of Nashville, Tenn., whose mother-in-law had done extensive research on the Carneal family of Caroline County, Va. She gave me her mother-in-law's e-mail address so that I could find out more.
But the ultimate high has been teaming up with my family's existing historians to create online something new and wonderful - accessible to nearly all members of the family on their own terms. Although critics say the Web encourages social isolation, these family-oriented sites have increased my sense of connection with my relatives - and with other humans in general.
So I'm hooked. And apparently, I'm not alone.
"Since we went online, our sites have opened up genealogy to a whole new generation," said MyFamily's Rampton. "It is now very common for a younger, technology-savvy family member to form a partnership with the family's traditional historian to administer the Web site and maintain their family tree. Once people try us, they quickly become addicted. Our sites are like Internet chocolate."
On the downside, as my research evolved, I learned things about my ancestors that I really did not want to know - a virtual Adam taking a bite of the apple from the Family Tree of Knowledge.
I wasn't prepared for the family skeletons - the kissin' cousins who were just a little too kissin' for modern-day sensibilities (not to mention state laws). Once I dug past the 20th century, there were enough marriages between first cousins to make me uncomfortable.
But I felt better after talking with Donna Reihl, a friend who has an anthropology degree and is director of the Community College of Baltimore County's Owings Mills campus.
The way she explained it, "Ancient cultures usually found their mates within a 30-minute walking distance. Anything beyond this time pattern could place the tribe, band or the individual at an increased risk.
"Taken into the context of society today," she said, "our daily lives and routines are often within a 30-minute radius from where we live. Community shopping centers, libraries, community colleges, restaurants, gas stations and pharmacies allow us to often live, work and marry in the 30-minute travel span."
I'm certain that Henry Ford had no idea how much he contributed to strengthening the gene pool of rural America when the Model T increased the "courtship radius" to a more acceptable distance.
Of course my wife, Gail Demmariah Smith Thomas, has an entirely different theory about first-cousin marriages: that it's based upon keeping land and accumulated wealth within the family.
Eventually, I decided it just doesn't matter. My family's history is what it is. The 400 humans and 52 different surnames in my online family tree have evolved into something more than a database of names, birthdays and funerals.
The tree represents an incredibly complex network of real people, with real relationships, real triumphs and real setbacks. It's a blueprint that explains how I came to be and how all the important people in my life came to be.
I see my mother, Joyce Yvonne Carneal Thomas Mewshaw, traveling to Caroline County to meet with distant cousins. In sepia photos of long-dead relatives, I see the angelic faces of my two children, Alexander James and Elizax beth Sterling Thomas. And I see my wife's grandmother, Ethel Doris Brown Cadwalader Norris, meticulously documenting the findings of her latest genealogical excursion.
I use my relatives' full genealogical names here because this extended notation now has a special meaning. I can understand why the Vietnam Memorial evokes such an emotional response from visitors as they rub their fingers lightly across the full names of relatives carved in the polished black stone.
Now, as I sit before my home computer late at night, the house is quiet. Gail and I are rifling the contents of a yellowed suitcase that we found not long ago in her parents' basement.
It contains notebooks, hand-drawn family trees, tracings of gravestones, birth announcements, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings, obituaries, divorce papers and death certificates dating back 150 years. This represents the entire body of research that occupied the last years of Grandma Ethel's life.
Sifting through this amateur genealogist's gold mine, we're struck by the anachronistic irony of it all. While we're harnessing a computer and the magic of the Internet to accumulate our family history, we can't help but think about how all this was started by two old gals who liked to crawl around spooky old graveyards.
Tim Thomas is The Sun's director of market development. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Want to learn more?
The Web is full of genealogy sites. Here are some of the best we've found, in alphabetical order.