Why Research My Family History?

Sometimes I wonder if I escape to the past to discover my ancestors when I am feeling the most lost in my own life.  Is that such a bad thing?  In the absence of elders, in the absence of a community that we once felt vital to our existence, tribal even, we create our own connections across the cosmos – sometimes virtual, sometimes spiritual, and sometimes ancestral.  These connections are vital, though the people may be dead.  It is my belief that they do live on in us, and that they fashion our existence out of their own.  Their dreams and wishes become our own, remodeled for the 21st century.  There really is no difference between us – only flesh and mortar.  The building blocks change.  The desire to change does not.

Why research my family tree right now, in the middle of everything else a  “suburban” wife, mother and creator needs to do:  Make lunches, pack bags, walk the dog, kiss the kids goodnight, connect with my spouse…  Not to mention the other things:  goals and passions, work-related material, new business ventures, mistakes, travels, wonder, newness.  Why invite the old into something so vitally new and different and now?  Why invite question into what is already so questionable?

Perhaps we invite our families in, past and present, because those questions invite real answers.  Though everything else, the present and the future, remain quite uncertain, the past invites reflection, comfort and meaning, and gives us a sense that we are not alone – that we are well connected to our roots, and that we can yet blossom to fully aware and alive human beings.  This tree is good.  This tree is where we are standing, and everything that came before us stems out beyond us in every direction.  No wonder we feel overwhelmed!  But, what a blessing.

I have been tracing my family tree with my grandmother for about 20 years now.  It has been a great blessing to connect with her and see her as a little girl, a mother, a wife and even a confused human being, just like me.  With all her aches and pains she doesn’t complain much. She is just happy to share her story, and share in the adventure of learning where we come from and who our ancestors were.  She is one of mine, though we may not think of it that way, because I know she will not be here forever.  She is 92. I may be able to call her next week, now, but it will not always be the case.

I have spent most of my time with my grandmother recording her, transcribing, writing furiously, shuffling through photos, videotaping and asking questions.  Just in case.  That may seem morbid, but this is the way stories are passed down – oral histories are rare, and so it is my job to capture them in any way possible.  Modern technology is a genius.  Once the role only of  mothers and grandmothers, now we are all collective storytellers, creators and communicators – “Skyping” and “tweeting” across the globe our own life history. Why not include those who traveled before us and make it a family history?

Even in the movie Avatar, the ancestral tree was the most sacred.  Though the villagers were seen by modern audiences as more advanced in some ways – in their understanding of their interconnectedness to all things – they would still visit the dangling limbs of the ancestral tree, lit with the intelligence and whisperings of their ancestors.  This was their home. Their adventure. Their playing ground.  They were not going “back”, they were going forward.   Perhaps that is what I am doing too.

Ancestors, whisper to me, and take me home.

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