The "about the author" page in my book Paper Angels begins with this sentence...
"Joe Beine lives in Denver, Colorado where he once met a Mexican girl who told him secrets passed down from someone far older than her."
Last year I sent a copy of the book to a friend in North Carolina. She wrote me a nice letter in return saying how she was touched that I had named a character in the book's opening story after her maternal grandmother, who died in 2000. I had learned of her grandmother a few years ago when I encouraged my friend to explore her family tree. She began by questioning relatives and I recorded the information for her in a genealogy program on my computer. But we never pursued any further research. Early last year I looked at her genealogy file and realized how fascinated I had always been with all of the colorful Spanish names in her family. As a writer I was thinking, these are really cool names and I'm going to use them!
I wrote the book's opening story, "The Man Who Photographed Angels," about a year ago. It was a last minute addition to the book, which by then had already been completed and was ready to be sent to the publisher. I remember showing the story to my editor and asking her what she thought about adding it to the manuscript. She replied with something like, "You'd better put it in the book -- it's my favorite story."
After I received my North Carolina friend's letter, I started looking at her family tree again and decided to do a bit of research for her as a surprise. I first located her beloved grandmother's obituary online in a Roswell, New Mexico newspaper. (I should probably point out here that my friend was born in Roswell and is clearly not of this earth.) The obituary contained all sorts of wonderful clues for further research. The names of my friend's grandmother's husband, parents, siblings and children were all listed, along with her dates of birth, marriage and death. I started looking in the Social Security Death Index, the online New Mexico Death Index Project, and New Mexico census records on microfilm. I ordered some church records from the Family History Library and some SS-5 forms from the Social Security Administration. I bought myself a paperback Spanish/English dictionary. I was in new territory -- I had never done a research project in New Mexico or done any Hispanic research before. But I was having fun collecting even more colorful Spanish names. The database grew from less than 20 people to over 50. Soon I had traced my friend's grandmother's paternal line back to the 1840s.
I sent my friend a letter and some printouts showing her newly expanded family tree. She responded with another long letter, thanking me. She had already shared the material with her mother, who planned to quiz older relatives for more information. My friend also told me many things about her grandmother. She said her grandmother's funeral procession was two miles long and nearly shut down Roswell in many spots. I'm certain that angels disguised as space aliens were hovering overhead.
I once met a Mexican girl who told me secrets passed down from someone far older than her. And one of those secrets was fashioned into a story with people from her family tree. For me this is what genealogy is all about -- finding meaning in the colorful names, traditions and stories that our ancestors pass down to us.
Author and Genealogist (Denver, Colorado)