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Article Published June 23, 2000

Sandra Devlin EAST COAST KIN (Canada)
By: Sandra Devlin, Biography & Archived Articles

What I learned in Providence

I set off for Providence, Rhode Island at the end of May with a full set of inherited baggage -- not my virtual suitcases, per se -- but rather cerebral baggage. I was weighed down with preconceptions of what to expect from the (US) National Genealogical Society Conference.

Although I have attended many genealogy conferences in various Canadian locations, I had only heard second-hand about the “biggies” in the States.

When I received word in early May that I had won first place in the e-zine/web-based genealogy columns category of the Council of Genealogy Columnists (since renamed the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors ), my family and several good friends urged me to go in person to accept the award.

“I cannot afford it,” I argued. “You cannot afford not to,” they countered. And so it happened. Once convinced to squander our children’s inheritance on airplane fare and convention registration fees, I then soon decided I also needed some new duds to wear, some new earrings, new underwear, of course, and a couple of pairs of new shoes.

The rational and practical side of my brain which almost always controls my life had suddenly and completely abandoned me. I was powerless to resist a long-ago conditioning, even as I fully recognized that this “getting ready” notion was a throw back to the days when my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts prepared for months in advance to impress the Boston-States relatives.

In days of yore in the Maritimes, time and timetables were counted down by the months, weeks and days remaining until “they” arrived “back home” for a visit.

New wallpaper and material by the yard was ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. Crisp new drapes were whipped up on the tredle Singer sewing machine and matching slip covers covered the old (today it would be heirloom) furniture, well in advance of an expected and much-anticipated summer visit from those we imagined lived “high on the hog” south of the border.

Our Sunday-best was starched and ironed to within a thread of its existence. New ribbons were purchased for the end of my naturally blond pigtails. Once I remember that the impending visit from our “cousins from away” netted me a spanking, brand-new pair of shiny black patent leather shoes which came with a stern warning: “Don’t scuff the toes.”

By the time I stepped off the airplane Tuesday May 30 at Logan International in Boston, I had worked myself into quite a stew.

The preceding sounds like I am a country hick who had never before travelled outside my beloved Maritimes, when quite the opposite is true. I have travelled quite extensively. I have visited, vacationed and attended business function and conventions in many, far-flung regions of North and Central America. Never once had I felt I needed a new wardrobe from head to foot.

There was really no accounting for the unease and trepidation which had nested in the form of butterflies in the pit of my stomach. But, there was no denying them either.

To say I was overwrought would be a mammoth understatement. Happily it did not take me long to shed my anxiety and return to my normal self who rarely cares a fig about what “material” impression I make. I was soon waving “hello” to familiar faces as I dashed from one lecture to another; striking up conversations with strangers at the vendors’ booths and seeking out names familiar only as e-mail pals among the sea of tags slung around the necks of the registrants.

My smoking buddies and I gathered outside on a park bench frequently to exchange friendly and informative chats.

Only one pair of new shoes saw an outing -- at the CGC banquet Wednesday night.

When it dawned on me that the comfort of my two feet in my time-worn. well-scuffed summer sandals was far more important to me, I knew I was “at home” at last with the people I like most in the whole world -- fellow genealogists.

In short order, I was ready to sample the huge smorgasbord of new information laid out before me.

I was truly surprized at how few Canadians were there. To my knowledge there were only four of us in Providence, two of whom I had on my “list” and was able to side track.

For all those fellow Canadians who missed it, here are some of the lasting tidbits I brought home from the 2000 NGS conference entitled New England - Bridge to America:
  • If you ever have the opportunity to attend a lecture by Elizabeth Shown Mills, don’t pass it up. Of all the excellent lectures I have ever attended on a variety of fascinating topics, I have never learned so much in one short hour as I did from Ten Steps to a Solution: How to Analyze and Develop a Research Strategy.
  • A blank sheet of orange paper on a microfilm reader screen will enhance the image.
  • Scrod is a tasty white fish.
  • The editor-in-chief of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Judson Hale is funnier than any stand-up comic alive. He was keynote speaker at the NGS banquet.
  • Dick Eastman of the Eastman Newsletter on the Internet fame, is just a pup. I supposed he was much older. In conversation with him, I discovered he has Sutherland and Stewart ancestors from the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. We might be “cousins”, in fact.
  • Cyndi Howells, one and the same from the infamous Cyndi’s List, is down to earth and extremely friendly.
  • Audio tapes, of excellent quality, are available at a reasonable price for a whole slew of conferences past from Repeat Performance, 2911 Crabapple Lane, Hobart, Indiana, 46342; web page:
  • A good way to single out folks at a large convention who share a common research interest is to loiter around the used and new books in the sections dealing with your geographic interest. I met dozens of folks this way by accident at first, by design later.
  • While I already knew on several levels (including my early indoctrination about Boston-States cousins) about the multitudes of genealogical connections which Canadians share with Americans, I was surprised again and again at just how many touch stones there are. One prime example is the Canadian Border Crossing records. I reserved my Thursday to spend at the National Archives branch in Waltham, Massachusetts. I came home with reams of new information about dozens and dozens of ancestors. I ran out of time. I could easily spend a week there and still not exhaust the potemtials for discovery. (Thursday was the day Donnie Osmond attended the conference to launch the One Great Family project. I was told he is even better looking in person than he is on television, but, fair warning, that is secondary information.)
  • Roger Williams Park in Providence can only be fully appreciated in person. The mansion alone is awesome. The grounds defy description.
Now that I have attended one NGS conference, I am gung ho to attend others. Providence was indeed time and money well invested.

Next year the conference entitled Explore New Frontiers will be held in Portland, Oregon, very probably a bit too rich for my pocketbook unless a rich relative about whom I am currently entirely unaware dies and leaves me a fortune.

In closing, I have to tell you about the woman from New York City who commented on my sandals. “They are quite old aren’t they?” she said to me. "I can tell by the style." (Also, no doubt, by the scuff marks!) I was a little taken aback at first by her off-hand comment.

I did not know that there were people who could date sandals by their design like others can date automobiles. I suppose this skill could be cultivated to help with dating photographs of unidentified ancestors in the album.

Thankfully, I was no longer concerned in the slightest about what impression, if any, my attire would have on my “Boston States” cousins. Next to genealogy, there is nothing quite so comfortable than being oneself in a comfortable pair of old shoes.

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