Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering my ancestors

Bath time for (baby) grandma
Bath time for (baby) grandma
The old religions had something right, I think. Keeping in mind the people who formed you, from their own bodies, even after they've gone to rest in the earth.

Today, lacking a ritual that satisfies that need without offending my own religious scruples, I have found that tracking my ancestors' movements brings to life something of who I am.

And that, in some ways, must have been what ancestor worship was all about: a way to know your place in the world. After all, social groupings seem so arbitrary. Circumstances of birth, property inheritance, marriageable persons within a reasonable distance from home ... these all seem incredibly--really incredibly--arbitrary. We have no control over any of them, and, what's worse, they seem so strangely random. Like the personalities of your siblings. How can one find meaning in any of this?

But the story of the dead; of where they went and what they did; of their wars and their courage; of their breaking new ground and migrating across continents--these are somehow meaningful to me. I watch my ancestors, as it were, cross oceans, found villages, set up churches, marry and move. And now and again, someone stands out as almost heroic in the herd: a man or woman who does something really noteworthy, whether for good or ill. And I begin to understand: maybe I really am connected with the world around me. Maybe I really do belong where I am. Maybe there is meaning in the circumstances of my birth, my wiry frame and personal traits, my siblings and the gifts I have inherited.

So yes, in a way, genealogical research is like ancestor worship, in the sense that it fills the same void. It gives honor to those who have died, without covering over their blemishes, except in the way that such things become lost to later generations. It honors how they have shaped me. That I am not alone. I am like others around me; and also, in some way, these others have left a trace of themselves in me.

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