A Captive Audience

This past weekend I had the pleasure of sitting with my father in his ravine-side gazebo overlooking a canopy of trees, with tea in hand, and many folders full of material from our family history.  I had never sat with him before in this manner or read to him aloud.  It was “very Chekov”, a friend of mine pointed out.  I thought it was sublime.

On one of his birthdays past, I gave him a family history with all of the information in it, including a picture of his great grandfather. It did not seem to spark his interest.  Something was missing in my pursuit to inspire him, or hook him, into the past as I had been many years before. I lacked the confidence to convey to him the importance of it to me, or to engage him in a way that he could understand.

This time was different.  I had collected some new facts, and found a nugget that really interested him.  Our grandfather was a Reeve and owned his own land.  He had many properties.  My dad smiled at me as I read aloud, himself a business man with property.  He challenged me on a couple of things.  His questions peaked my interest and we sparred over whether or not such and such was true or not, or if we were related to so and so at all.  I believed we were, which fascinated him more. As he lay there on his lounger, head leaning back, eyes closed, I thought he fell asleep, only to arise with another question, “Do you think they were drinkers?”  I laughed out loud.

And…

“When are you going to find out more?”

I smiled. He was hooked.

Advertisements

Playing What If…

What if that one event we thought so pivotal to our life never happened?…

After watching Shrek Forever After today, I had to wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken with my husband or moved close to the city.  I would not have become an actor when I did, I would not have joined a band (certainly not), I would not have had my daughter; nor would I live in this house, care one bit about gardening and keeping up with the weeds, or what schools to go to.

Then I look at the events in my family history, each ancestor’s life merely a time-line to me.  And I wonder, what don’t I know?  Why did this person do such and such?  Why did they marry this person and not that person?  What if they hadn’t?  And here I am, in the present, a live vestige of their every decision, now making my own decisions that will affect the lives of everyone around me.  What if I weren’t here?

Everybody wonders that at some point.  But this has come alive for me in the context of sorting my family history, and my life, all at once.  In the papers of old, I have asked myself where do I fit in, do I matter in this infinite time-line of events?  What difference do I make?

Maybe I am being hard on myself.  But I didn’t punch Sir John A. MacDonald in the nose, or build a railroad (my great grand-uncle did).  I didn’t leave my native Ireland and start all over again (my forefathers did).  Or did I?  In some small way, did I not leave my own native country – my childhood, the little city I called home, my family of origin?  I left all of that behind to go to university, earn a living in the big city, incite a passion long wanted, and eventually have a family of my own.  We all make choices and take leaps in our own way.  We all have our stories.

But what if we hadn’t?  This is not a question for regret, but for appreciation.  No matter how ugly it gets, there is benefit.  There is something or someone who wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for you.  You may not know it yet, but 50 or even 100 years from now, when someone is fishing through your papers or photo album, or remembering something you had said, they will be happy you were here.  They will be grateful that you did what you did, even if it was to give them something to write about!

One more thing:  And this is sentimental.  Since doing a time-line of my family of yesteryear, I decided to do one for myself.  Looking at the events of my life, I see not much at all.  Yet knowing myself and my life as I do, and how rich it really is, I have to realize that my approach to my family’s history (and the perspective of my life) has been very, very thin.  Amidst all of those dates – births, marriages and deaths – and great escapes – was a life, many lives, intertwined.  And what were they intertwined for?  Love, hatred, war, forgiveness, personal battles, contentment, building a home, building a country, building a Life.  In between all of the things I thought were important, the signposts and milestones we may consider noteworthy, a real live person breathed.  A real live person kissed their husband for the first time.  A real live person lost their innocent child and grieved.

There is so much more to family history than names and dates.  And, so much more to my life than meeting deadlines or phantom expectations.  If only I realized now what I have already done is build an incredible life – not only noteworthy, but rich with possibility and creativity, with people I have loved and lost along the way, yet all in the very same boat with me.  And a generation to come, or two, may not know or care, but I do.  I will never know all of the people I affected along the way, or what ripples I made – all I know is, like Shrek, I am very glad it did.

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.