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I have to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring Rosie O’Donnell. All the “wow”s in the trailer made me cringe. “Oh no — it’s going to be nothing but fluff.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

(Spoiler alert! If you haven’t watched it and want to be surprised, do NOT read the rest of this! You have been warned :) )

As a human interest story, it was incredibly moving. As most of Rosie’s fans know, her mother died when she was only 10. Naturally, that was the side of the family that Rosie wanted to concentrate on. Nearly immediately, she found a family tragedy — the death of her great-grandfather’s first wife. She died 20 days after she was burned by an exploding kerosene lamp. Her reunion with her 2nd-cousins was heartwarming. (And they identified a family photo for her!)

Census records lead her to Quebec, where she discovered the clue that she’d been looking for: the family’s origin in Ireland.

Ireland was a place with tragedy that Rosie was unprepared for. She discovered a child who had died during the Famine and that the family, with four small children, were sent to the workhouse. To say that the workhouse she visited was oppressive is a gross understatement. As Rosie said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but you can definitely feel something here.” As the historian was explaining how the men went to one area, women to another, and children beginning at age 2 were separated from their parents, you couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could survive with their spirit intact. Then to see the “dormitories” where they lived — 40 beds in a room with perhaps 4 people in a bed — and consider the speed at which disease would have spread, you had to wonder how anyone could survive.

Watching the episode, it was easy to see how it affected Rosie. (And, in all honesty, I was a bit teary-eyed myself.) Rosie mused that the story of her ancestors was one of horror and redemption. “The gift is to focus on the redemption.”

As a genealogist, I was thrilled by some things in this episode:

  • She concentrated on a collateral line! How awesome that nearly 1/4 of the episode was devoted to someone who wasn’t even Rosie’s ancestor!
  • The episode was research-oriented. When she would get one document, either she or the expert would point out a clue, what it meant, and how it could lead her to the next thing.
  • Rosie appeared to be much more of an active participant than some other celebrities. What’s more, it looks like she enjoyed it! Yes!

I know there are going to be someone who says, “But she handled some records without wearing gloves!” There are two distinct camps in the archives world: gloves and no gloves. I’m in the “no gloves” camp. I think that gloves remove too much tactile feedback. You lose that sense of fine touch. Without it, you can easily end up doing more damage to the paper than if you hadn’t worn gloves. One exception to the “no gloves” camp: you must wear gloves when handling photographs — no ifs, ands, or buts about that one.

At one point, Rosie commented on her search: “It’s much more moving than I expected it to be.” Yes, Rosie, that’s what family history is all about.

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