They say that when an old person dies, it's as if a library has burned to the ground. The first-hand knowledge and understanding of the times in which that person lived no longer can be passed on to descendants.

Genealogists tend to think of such an unfortunate situation as the ultimate missed opportunity.

About five years ago guilt over not having researched the line of my family that hails from St. Helena Island got the best of me. My reason for letting research on other lines take priority was that cousins from the island probably would get around to doing it.

At some point, however, my reason began to sound more like an excuse.

I phoned my grand-aunt, Sadie Collins, the sister of my maternal grandmother, who died when my mother was a child. That call turned out to be one of the wisest I have made or will ever make. After the conversation, I had the foundation needed to research that line forever.

The information Aunt Sadie provided on my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, their siblings and their birth orders left me feeling so elated, it was as if I were walking on air.

Yet, it was just a hint of what I was to learn, both from records documenting much of what she had said, and from future conversations with her.

Well, there will be no more running by to see her for an hour or two here and there or calling her when stuck on a research problem. The days of spending time with her at home, the hospital and hospice are over. Aunt Sadie recently died at age 90.

I will treasure the day we drove from Savannah to an old plantation cemetery on St. Helena Island. She was unrestrained by overgrown plots, barbed-wire fencing, or the sign that clearly read "no trespassing."

We were searching for the graves of ancestors whose burials she had attended many, many years before.

A handwritten letter Aunt Sadie wrote to me about her joy at receiving a research report I compiled for her has added value.

Her habit of calling roads and places on St. Helena by their old names will continue to be tremendously helpful. And who else would have thought to take me to the cove where "Cousin Tiny" ventured, never to have been heard from again.

A few weeks ago, as she lay in bed too weak to move, she repeated names of those in that ever-widening circle of ancestors she wanted me to research.

It would be wonderful to have her provide more names. And I want more information about the way life was on St. Helena as she grew up among relatives born during and just after slavery.

But now that she's become an ancestor, that won't be possible.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705 or wminis@postandcourier.com.