A few months ago, my grandmother, after seeing the records I'd found of her grandparents and great-grandparents, asked if I would be able to find out anything about a high school friend she'd lost touch with. They'd been best friends - Anna Miami* was in my grandmother's wedding - but had had a falling out, and between moves on both sides, had fallen completely out of touch. Her maiden name was unusual, but her married name may as well have been Smith, it was so common. My grandmother had looked for her for years with no luck. She'd asked my aunts and uncles to look for her. She'd called random Anna Smiths in the phone book - but she had never been able to get in touch with her.
I told her I'd try, but I wasn't sure where to start.
In actuality, I did know where I'd start, but I wasn't about to tell Grandma that the first place I'd look would be the SSDI. Though my grandmother is in good health, she's in her 80s, and undoubtedly many of the people she went to high school with have since passed away. I did find one possible entry on the SSDI, and I ordered her SS-5 to see if the maiden name was correct. (By the time it arrived, I already knew it was wrong.)
I wasn't really sure where to turn to find a living person. I tried Google with no luck, searched the U.S. Public Records Index on Ancestry (which only tells you enough to confirm what you already know, really). No dice. Eventually I decided to try the only way I actually have any experience finding people: genealogical records. I didn't think I'd be successful, but maybe if I could find Anna Miami on the 1930 Census, I'd be able to figure something out. Learn her parents' names and find their obituaries, learn her brothers' names and be able to Google them, who would have kept their more unusual birth surname.
I got even luckier than that. I found her in 1930, and the record was attached to someone's tree. From the looks of the tree, she was an in-law, and I had no idea whether the tree owner would know anything about her current whereabouts. There are certainly people in collateral lines attached to my online tree who may or may not be alive, and whom I would have no way of contacting if they were. I contacted the tree owner, and two days later got an excited phone call from my husband at work (our Ancestry messages go to his e-mail address). The tree owner had called his mom, who still kept in touch with Anna; the mom called Anna, who was thrilled to hear that my grandmother was looking for her; and we had an Ancestry.com message with her address and phone number that said Anna was "overjoyed" that Grandma was trying to find her.
I had started my search really afraid that I would have to call my grandmother and let her know that Anna Miami had been dead for years. Instead, I got to call her up and tell her Anna was thrilled to hear from her, and give her Anna's phone number.
I never expected that the most fulfilling, emotional "genealogy" discovery I'd ever make would be about someone I have absolutely no relationship to, but I've never been prouder of something I've found.
(An additional perk is that I've gained some legitimacy in the eyes of all the relatives who roll their eyes at my genealogical interests - all the research into dead people gave me the skills to finally do something "useful.")
*names changed to protect the living.