Family History, Genealogy

Deep Roots and Gnarled Branches: Telling Tales of our Dead

I love to do genealogy. I have traced my own family tree and those of friends interested in knowing. I search old newspapers looking for tidbits that might reveal something about my ancestors. Where did they come from? What were they like? Their history becomes a part of us. It determines where we are born and often where and how we live our lives.

We tend to think of our ancestors almost as if they were super-human. But of course, they were not. They were just people. No different from us. They did good things. They may have done bad things. They may have found themselves in strange situations just as we sometimes do and like us, they may not have known how to react. How many times have we looked back on a situation and said to ourselves “I wish I had done something else?” How many times have we thought of just the right thing to say – the next day, when it is too late to say anything at all?

Our ancestors lived and breathed and faced controversy, felt great sadness, peace, jealousy, rage, happiness, and joy. They faced problems or ran away from their problems. Most were good people just trying to do their best. Some may have been scoundrels or selfish “Sons of Bitches.” Many Americans today are Americans only because another country dumped their most troublesome prisoners onto America’s shore, said “Good Riddance,” and sailed away. But regardless of who they were or where they came from, our ancestors lived a life. That life today makes an interesting story.

I’ve had living relatives ask me why there is no place for them on my family tree or in the family stories that I have written. They sometimes feel slighted, as if maybe I don’t find them worthy of the branch or interesting enough for the mention. Neither of these things is true. I find every life story to be of interest but as every pre-teen knows, if you want to quickly piss off your sister, just reveal one of her secrets at the family dinner table!

But all kidding aside, I don’t record data for the living because a) identity theft is a problem today and I don’t want to contribute to that problem. But b) there is more to it than that. I do not talk about the living because their stories are not yet finished. Those who are living have a right to reveal as much or as little of themselves as they want. Their stories are their own. They are not mine to tell.

Once gone, our voice becomes the only voice that our ancestors have. They can no longer speak for themselves. Lives, both short and long, are most often quickly forgotten. My goal is to see that they are remembered. I will dig up and record their facts. I will ask questions and speculate on questions unanswered. I will form theories based on the rhythms of human nature as we know it and by pasting together random clues and twisting strands of possibilities.

Too many today hide the skeletons of their family’s past. As long as people who can be affected remain alive, perhaps the closet is the best place for those bones. But for the deceased, I say bring those old forgotten ancestral bones into the light. We should tell our ancestral stories – both the good ones and the bad – because perhaps, other than a worn gray stone in a cemetery somewhere, our stories may be all that our ancestors have or ever will have. We can be the bridge that connects our ancestors to future generations. And we owe our children the truth about from whom and from where they came.

There is no need to judge our ancestors. We do not have to be embarrassed by their faults or misdeeds. They lived in a different time and played by different rules. We are not them anymore than our great great grandchildren will be us. Ancestral stories should be told and treasured like classic novels. Read them, love them, laugh at them, cry for them, and then pass them on to tomorrow.

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