Archive for December 8th, 2009

I’ve been doing some genealogy lately.  Don’t worry- I won’t bore you with all the details of my family.  Nobody wants to read that.

But doing so raises the question of why I’m doing this.  What is the purpose in looking back?

Growing up, there was never a sense of history in our families.  It felt as though our family lines had started one or two generations before, little known before the lives of our grandparents.  Hardly anything in the way of familial knowledge was passed down, either in words or objects.  It gave a feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the world.   It left me wondering if the place we occupied in life at the moment was always this same niche.  How did we arrive at this point?

For example, there’s a side in my family that seems like a hopeless lot.  Barely educated with many being illiterate.  Poor.  Prone to violence and crime.  The only stories I heard about this side of my family were lurid accounts of fights breaking out at funerals where the casket ends up overturned and guys kicking out the screens of their televisions while watching professional wrestling.  There were other stories that were worse than that but I’ll keep them to myself, thank you.

The point is, how did they get to this low level?  Were they always like this?  Were they always stupid?  Were they always fighting themselves at the bottom?

When you’re trying to figure out who you are and you see that half of your past is less than inspiring, you begin to wonder.

So I begin to dig, putting together a fragile puzzle with bits and pieces spread all over the place.  I use all the online resources I know of to gain  bits and pieces of info.  There’s hardly any movement then, with a single piece of found information, there’s a landslide of information and the pattern of this family seems to be uncovered.  Their place in the web of the world is there to be seen, not hidden anymore under layers of ignorance and shame.

I felt like an orphan discovering the name of his parents, feeling connected with a knowable history.

And for this side of my family, it was truly enlightening to view their line.  They seemed to be the products of nothing but ignorance at this point but it was not always the case.  Their decline was many, many generations in the making.  They had been religious scholars and among the wealthy merchant class of northern Europe going back to the mid-1500’s.  Recruited by William Penn and coming to America they had been among the first settlers of Philadelphia. They fought with Washington at Valley Forge.  They moved westward, forming some of the earliest frontier settlements in Virginia and beyond.

But as they went, there was a serious erosion of the value they placed on knowledge and learning as evidenced by the numbers of them who were marked down in censuses of the 1800’s as being unable to read or write.  While their family line had once been at the forefront of the great movement west as leaders and landowners, they gradually settled into a life as tenants and farm laborers.  Each generation bringing them closer and closer to the version of this family that I now know.

So what’s the purpose of this whole exercise?  I don’t really know for sure.  For me, it’s finding that my family was an active part of the American past, that there is a foundation down there under the rubble.  It’s a newly found pride in a name that I didn’t want to claim as part of me.  It’s knowing that a positive contribution to the formation of this country has been made and that this line of the family is a real part of the American experience.

It also points out the value of knowledge and education in the survival of a family.

And a country…

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: