An Ancestral Revolution

There's a spirited revolution unfolding in America -- but this time around, folks don't want to change the world as much as they demand to know their place in it. On the surface, genealogy may seem like an innocuous hobby, but in this age of smartphones and e-Readers, more and more families are anxious to download two very basic and sometimes profound answers: Who am I and where did I come from?

Julius and Joysetta Pearse are helping people answer those thorny questions. Married for more than three decades, the couple entered retirement with dreams of long vacations and cuddling grandchildren in a leafy suburb of New York City. The septuagenarians got hooked on genealogy in 1990 while desperately trying to track down a long-lost relative -- who was subsequently found. Now they run the popular African-Atlantic Genealogical Society out of a local library where they help people of all races connect the dots in their family line. It's a lot of work with not much pay, but they say it's a labor of love that blossoms every time clients thank them with tears in their eyes., the mother of all genealogy websites with nearly 1.7 million paying subscribers, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year and they meticulously keep track of the thousands of emotional emails that flood their inboxes from people who proclaim their lives are forever changed as a result of unraveling family mysteries.

56-year-old Marie Fong of Polson, Montana, unraveled a very personal mystery on the world's largest online family history resource last spring and she calls it a "major paradigm shift" that permanently changed her life. Adopted when she was two months old, Marie recently learned that her birth mother, Betty Ann, was a divorced mother of three when she got pregnant with little Marie. Betty Ann put her baby up for adoption because she was struggling to make ends meet as a single mom. When Marie found Betty Ann's obituary online and dropped this "bombshell" on her newly-discovered adult siblings, they were stunned to learn that Marie even existed. Betty Ann died of cancer in December of 2010 and it turns out one of her precious possessions was the hospital bracelet that bore witness to the birth of a baby that she apparently never told a soul about. Nowadays, Patrick, Michael and Kathy are still awestruck when they embrace their newfound sister who bears a striking resemblance to their proud Irish mother.

Tracing the details of my own ancestry has been such a seminal moment in my life that when I die, I have already stipulated in my will that my obituary must highlight my jaw-dropping discovery of my long-lost great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, who escaped the pit of slavery to go fight in the Civil War with five men who were like brothers to him. They were all the property of slaveholder Edmund Wills. The last name carried down for generations but their heroic story did not. Until now.

If that's not revolutionary, I don't know what is.