Monday, May 14, 2012

Family Histories

One of my sanity projects last month—a.k.a. “insanity projects” (see last post)—has been to pick up an old interest in genealogy. I’m not sure what the appeal is, exactly, in knowing that you had an ancestor who lived in the Shenandoah Valley (true) or some south German castle (probably not true). But one thing is clear: It can be highly addicting.

It also has the power to change—and sometimes reinforce—my personal narrative.

As a lover and sometime teller of stories, and for that matter as a human being, I often tell stories to myself about myself. Who I am and where I come from. To take one example: Having grown up in the north (Ohio), I always told myself my ancestors weren’t slave owners (false). Living in America, I also told myself my ancestors most likely came here to escape religious persecution back in Europe (far, far from the whole story). I’ve shared with many other Americans of European descent a sense of guilt over the treatment of the native tribes (justified). I’ve also always been drawn to “little people”: misfits, powerless, indigent, the works. Good to know my ancestors are listed among their number (very true).

More surprising were the number of strands that (as far as I can discover) go back to colonial or Revolutionary War days. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, my branch of these trees kept drifting West. From Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee. Then to Indiana, to Illinois, to Missouri. Or from Pennsylvania to New York to Illinois to Missouri. Then on to Kansas and Nebraska. It was like a tidal wave, taking each daughter or son out to where the next generation should meet and drift yet further.

Only it stopped before I was born. After the second World War, when (I think) America was undergoing significant changes. And members of my family drifted back, as if on the changing tide, from Nebraska to Missouri to Ohio. And then (me now) to New York and Boston. And now, at last, by some strange magic unrelated to any quest for roots, to North Carolina. (I now live some couple hundred miles west of where one of my ancestors married his wife.) Who can say where my children will go?

What, if anything, is the meaning of such a story? It’s an American story, that much is clear. It connects me deeply to the land I live in—to all the lands I’ve lived in. And it makes me more a part of this rich history than my personal narrative had it.

It’s also a tale of movement, and settling on farms; of large families, and trying to make a life that’s better and more secure. However wealthy some fellow was, his fourth child (a daughter) marries someone with less wealth, less standing, who, after two generations, brings her offspring to a place as wild as her fathers once encountered.

This probably made my people feel rootless. But rediscovering it makes me feel rooted.

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