When she opened the door, I looked again into the face of my long-departed great-grandmother back in Texas: the same twinkling eyes, the same ladylike chuckle.

By Gary D Ford

When friends ask how I spend spare time and I reply, "Genealogy," they give me one of those looks that says, "Get a life."

I did. Her name is Aunt Lillie.

It's true. I spend cheerful, sunny weekends in research libraries, my head inside the box of a microfilm projector. Its light bulb is my lamp down dark corridors of time, shinning on the tracks of my family who spent two centuries moving across the South to Texas.

I took up genealogy several years ago when I was trying to get over a woman and cigarettes. It worked. A genealogy library makes a great recovery tank; you can't smoke in there, and the only humans you think about are dead. The impulse to find family, however, was genetic. It struck the day I began to gray, the morning mortality looked back in the mirror. It was time to find my place in the pantheon of my people.

I am not alone. In the South we worship genealogy like an "old-time" religion. Once only little gray-haired ladies congregated at card catalogs; now all types fill the pews around me – young and old.

Some in the libraries are professional genealogists, hired guns tracking down other peoples' lives. Most are amateurs, but they research in a scholarly manner, following the facts of their families to whatever doorsteps they lead – plantation manor or creek-side cabin. I suspect a diminishing few, however, still prune family trees of unsightly limbs, like horse thieves, and graft onto ancestral charts the rich, royal, and famous. As for me, I care not about blue blood, and I would be neither surprised nor chagrined to find some ancestor's name on a police blotter. I have simply wanted to learn where and how my people lived.

It hasn't been easy. I descend from poor-to-middling cotton farmers who moved a lot and possessed a cavalier regard for education. Thus, they didn't leave behind many records, but they did sow a few memorable stories in the wagon ruts along their way west. From the clues left, I solved one family mystery and verified another family myth as fact. I even tracked an 18th-century immigrant to county Antrim in Northern Ireland. Most important, I found Aunt Lillie.

Nothing is more tedious than someone else's genealogy, so I'll be brief. I learned my great-great-great grand-father, Allen Leach, migrated from Walton County, Georgia, to Texas in 1854. As far as I knew, the Leach families in Georgia and Texas has completely lost touch. We finally spoke again when I placed an ad in the Walton County Tribune, outlining the family history, in hopes that some Georgia kin would call. Two days later, the telephone rang. "This is Ray Leach in Monroe," the voice said, "and I think I can help you."

On a cheerful, sunny weekend afternoon, my newfound Cousin Ray showed me a Leach family cemetery and the homeplace Allen let in 1854. Then Ray took me to meet his aunt, Lillie Leach Johnson.

When she opened the door, I looked again into the face of my long-departed great-grandmother back in Texas: the same twinkling eyes, the same ladylike chuckle. Aunt Lillie welcomed us inside, and as I told the story of her great uncle, Allen Leach, and his exodus to Texas, she listened carefully, nodded, and replied, as if it had occurred just a few years ago: "Well, we always wondered what happened to Allen."

Since then, I've brought my parents back to Walton County twice, where my mother has walked through her ancestral home. We've spent afternoons visiting with Ray and with Aunt Lillie, who, blessed with a wonderful wit, can tell great stories.

She told us this one last fall: "A few weeks ago, my granddaughter was driving me around down near Good Hope, and I said, ‘Have you ever seen a 99-year-old woman pick cotton? Well, you're bout to.' It was the first time in 45 years I had even wanted to pick cotton."

As we were leaving, Aunt Lillie said she wanted my mother to take something back to Texas and pressed into her hands two bolls of the Georgia cotton she had picked.

I'm so glad I found Aunt Lillie. She gives flesh and voice to all those spools of microfilm, and she has made whole the long-broken circle of our family. We'll visit Aunt Lillie again on June 11, when she will put on her bonnet and walk out to a mailbox filled with birthday cards. That day, Lillie Leach Johnson turns 100. I hope it's a cheerful, sunny day.