We’re all links in a chain
If there’s one thing my father’s decades of genealogical research have shown me, it’s that communities (micro to macro) are connections of people who are related in twisty, bendy, branched ways — sort of a six degrees of separation concept as applied to a family tree. After moving from place to place all my life, it has been a strange experience to stand in a churchyard and know that I am somehow related to many of the people buried under the lichen-covered marble stones even though the names on those stones vary.
At this point, I can’t even imagine how many pages my father’s research would total if he were to print out the whole thing. One of his (and my own) great fears is that something will happen to his computer and it will eat all his data. Zipffft would go the image of my grandmother standing in front of a giant sequoia, of my other grandmother costumed on the General Wayne candy float in the parade, the image of my great grandfather surrounded by his family proudly standing alongside the new family car, the grainy copy of a newspaper wire photo of my dad the day he graduated from Annapolis hoisting a pretty blonde in some variation of that famous sailor meets cutie Times Square V-Day image.
My own sons mostly shrug. I’ve dragged them to enough churchyards and historic homes that they don’t really pay attention anymore. (Though I suspect that osmosis is taking place and they will be affected just as I was, toodling around the countryside with my parents and stopping in at historic sites and antique shops all over New England.)
The youngest boy brought home a memo from his third grade teacher asking parents to send in photographs of ancestors to be used in an upcoming class project. Dutifully, I pulled images from my treasure trove and burned a disk to send in. I printed out a contact sheet to review with the boy so he’d know who the people were and how they were related to him.
“These are your great-great-aunts who were in the circus,” I explained.
“uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” he said and shoved the disk in his bag. So much for exhibiting the slightest bit of interest.
But then an interesting thing happened.
He came home filled with questions. In the photo of the people dressed in tuxedos — who was that? In the photo where the people are dancing, where are they? In the photo that’s like the picture we saw visiting our friends, who is that? He got interested because other people were interested. They had questions and so now he was curious too. My answers sparked additional questions and so began a real dialogue about who he came from and what their stories are.
The lesson here is personal connection. There had to be some turning point where this information became about him. He made an emotional connection to the past and wanted to know more. (You’ve probably read something along those lines before on this blog, during one of my rants about how the failure to make history/architecture relevant to a modern audience makes it irrelevant and thus endangered.)
I love watching the celebrity guests (Meryl Streep, Dr. Oz, Stephen Colbert and more) on PBS Television’s “Faces of America” program turn the pages of the scrapbook given to them by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Watching their rapt faces as he unravels their own personal story for them. I love being able to watch the connection take place as they learn about relatives they’ve often never heard of or have a jarring moment of confrontation with a document — real proof of a history that is theirs. It moves me to see them moved, to see them wipe a tear, or steady themselves, palms flat on the table, while they take in a whopper of an ancestral fact about persecution, triumph, tragedy or staggering coincidence. This series debuted the week of February 10 (check local listings); episodes are also available online.
With interest I noted that Lisa Kudrow is executive producer of a new project with Ancestry.com and NBC called “Who Do You Think You Are?” The seven part series sounds similar to Gates’ celebrity family tree journeys though perhaps with an additional DIY aspect that will also explain to the viewer how to discover their own roots. Featured are Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee. The program launches Friday, March 5 at 8pm EST on NBC.