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BY ROBERT WILSON JR. Modified: November 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm •  Published: November 13, 2012

The next hatbox I pulled off the top shelf of the closet nearly tipped me off the ladder. It was the weight that surprised me; it was far too heavy for just a hat. As I regained my balance, I wondered why this one weighed more than the others. I set it on the vanity and started untying the strings.

I was curious if it would reveal any secrets about my mother, although I wasn’t expecting too much. All the other hatboxes contained ... well, actual hats. Women’s hats from the 1950s and 60s with velvet, lace, feathers, and fur. It was a bittersweet nostalgia trip as my family inventoried the contents of my mother’s house. She had passed away six months earlier.

I lifted the lid and found photographs. Hundreds of black and white photos ... some of them dating back to the American Civil War. They were photos I had never seen before. Pictures of people ... presumably relatives ... but I didn’t know that for sure. It was a mystery, and one that I knew I would have to solve.

Looking at those photos one at a time was overwhelming, so one day I took them into my living room. I pushed all the furniture back to the walls, then spread the photos out on the floor. For the next several days I played the match game. Matching faces and places. Luckily, a few of them had inscriptions on the back that revealed names, dates and locations.

Once I had categorized the photos into groups, I met with my one living relative who was old enough to possibly know who some of these people were. The information she gave me added an entire branch to my family tree. I then started searching the internet where the floodgates opened.

Over the next few years, I found myself on a genealogical journey that did more than just place names to faces. It led me to recognize that my family’s dysfunction didn’t begin with my parents, but had a pattern that had been passed down generation after generation. And, that gave me the insight I needed to work on it (a topic for a future column).

A good mystery is compelling and we are motivated to find the answer. A mystery, however, is just a problem that needs to be solved. And, some of them really need to be solved.

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