I find myself staring into the face of Charles Dickerson, my great-great grandfather. He is handsome, with wavy hair and a mustache. He looks familiar.
The photograph, copied and cleaned up from a 150-year-old tintype, is new to me. It tumbled last month out of a bulging family scrapbook kept over a half-century by one of his long departed granddaughters. It is the youngest image of him my cousins and I have found thus far.
Charles is about 30 and wearing a Union infantry four-button "sack coat." The tintype probably was made in August 1862 when he enlisted in the Michigan 23rd Infantry's Company D.
I look into his eyes and study his face. He returns my gaze, never blinking. I see my brother Gary's eyebrow ridges, cheek bones and hair. I email him a digital copy.
"Do you see any family resemblances?" Gary emails back within a minute.
"You, when you were in your 30s and had a mustache," I reply.
Seven years ago, I knew nothing about Charles and wife Cordelia (Thornton) Dickerson, who moved during the mid-1850s from New York's Niagara County to Michigan's Thumb. Hattie, the youngest of their nine children, born in 1873, was my great-grandmother.
In 2005, my older cousin Tom gave me a Civil War letter Charles wrote in July 7, 1864, during the Battle of Kennesaw in Georgia. It is full of the distant cannon thunder, love of wife and children and anti-slavery sentiment.
I began my genealogical quest on July 4, 2006. My notebooks hold forests of family trees dating back to England, the American Revolution and the earliest settlers of my hometown. With the help of genealogies, history museums and modern-day cousins I never knew I had, I have three more Civil War letters, family pictures, newspaper items, two confirmed photographs of Charles.
And so much more. That yellowing letter, scrawled along the Chattahoochee River, has become a defining moment in my life.
It helped me find what poet Mary Oliver calls "my place in the family of things."
It connects me and my family to American and European history and embeds us in it.
It helps me better understand the waves and forces of history that can shape generations and break spirits and hearts — poverty, ignorance, war, slavery, racial hatred, genocides, epidemics, violence against women, children and nature.
It ties threads broken by all of the above. It teaches me the healing power of connection and the peace, love. compassion and laughter it can bring.
I used to think genealogy was living in the past. Today I know it sheds light on yester-centuries and lets me live more fully enriched in the present.
Loraine Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.