Digging up our roots
The pursuit of genealogy may be full of misinformation and false starts, but one thing is certain. We are all one story and one family.
Here’s a fun fact about Fort Wayne, Indiana few people know. It is home to the nation’s largest public genealogy collection. An extension of our fine public library system is the Genealogy Center, an exhaustive site with records reaching deep into our collective family histories.
When I first moved to Fort Wayne, I spent hours in the library mesmerized by online scans of the U.S. Census Report documenting the whereabouts and conditions of my ancestors’ lives. How many children did they have at the time of the Census? What was their occupation in 1940? What did they identify as their mother tongue? How many years of education did they complete?
There is something about these facts enumerated in the census taker’s handwritten scroll that makes the lives of my distant relatives more real to me. They aren’t just ghostly figures dancing around in the memories of my aunts, summoned through stories told over glasses of wine at the family dinner table. No, they are flesh and blood people who lived in houses on streets next to neighbors whose names quickly follow each other on the Census Report. Suddenly, the idea of a neighborhood emerges. This one’s a doctor. That one’s a laborer. Did they like each other? Did they share a beer after a long day of work? Did their children play together? Were they happy in their marriages?
The popularity of shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots are proof of our national fascination with knowing where we come from. But what is it about digging into our distant pasts that so captures our imaginations? Why does knowing that our great, great grandfather was a farmer who couldn’t read or write make us feel more complete? What is this itch we must scratch, this hole we must fill, this backyard of ancestors we must dig up?
My own search began hunched over a computer screen on the second floor of Fort Wayne’s downtown library. I hit big on my first branch, climbing my maternal grandfather’s tree all the way back to a Marie Anne Hebert in Bern, Switzerland in 1671. When I had collected and sorted all of the available information, I was eager to report all of it to my mom and her sisters. Their questions came fast and furious: When did their grandparents move from Arkansas? Were they mule farmers? What was the name of their great grandpa’s sister, that one people only whispered about? What do you mean we used to be Canadian?
It’s hard to explain the deep satisfaction of successfully digging up the bones of my ancestors through the information on death certificates, passenger and immigration lists, and vital and church records. But it’s a weird feeling, too. It’s like having your floors swept, bathrooms cleaned, beds made, and table set for a weekend of guests, but the guests are never coming. They are long gone.
I spent a lot of time turning the spectral figures of my ancestors into real people. While poring over multiple tabs and cross-checking dates and considering alternate spellings, my ancestral guests began to animate in that space between screen and brain. Their faces became less sepia toned and less hard mouth lines from the discipline of long film exposure. The absence of a child in a 1930 Census who had been reported in a 1920 Census began to feel less like a statistical entry and more like a personal loss. In the quiet of the library, I caught myself shouting, “Yay!” when a passenger list identified the arrival of another person with the same last name, making the historical fact of my ancestor’s immigration feel more like a family reunion.
But what does this widening of family experience really give me? What is the benefit in understanding my distant relatives as moving constellations rather than fixed stars?
A.J. Jacobs, an author who started the Global Family Reunion to promote the idea that we are all cousins, believes that genealogy is the key to understanding our interconnectivity. In a New York Times piece called “Are You My Cousin,” Jacobs argues that his tree is not exactly a tree, but an “Amazonian forest.” And further, that it’s not even his tree, but “our tree.” According to one mathematical model, Jacobs is right. We are indeed all related with our roots leading back just a few thousand years to one person. This makes all of us 120th cousins.
While there is a current trend to find out which famous people extend up and down the limbs of our family trees, those bright points matter less than the whole of it. If Madonna and Charlemagne are on your family tree, so are another 75 million people. In this way, the world gets a whole lot bigger and a whole lot smaller all at once. Our stories, Cousin, are a part of a bigger story and that bigger story includes me and you and you and you.
Which helps me with my whole wistfulness problem. At the end of my search, I was sad, partly because the fun of the pursuit had ended. The availability of my ancestor’s documents dried up as I moved back into the smaller European villages they came from. There, shut up in their small houses on foggy streets with neither electricity nor historical records to illuminate them, they became ghosts again. So I lost both the fun of the search and my ancestors all at once.
But if I take the real lesson to heart that all of our stories lead back to each other, then it is not just my ancestors I have been readying my house for. All those little shaking leaves on Ancestry.com lead far enough back to a single root shared by every living person. Why focus on the loss of ancestors when I can celebrate the finding of a billion cousins? While I can’t literally invite all of you into my house, I figuratively can.
This changes everything. If I can find a way to make my own a woman who lived 300 years ago in Bern, Switzerland, why not a woman who lives across town?
The benefits of recognizing one giant family are obvious. At a time in history when the world feels increasingly divisive, the social fact remains that we are all related. The pursuit of genealogy may be flawed and full of misinformation and false starts, but one thing is certain. We are all one story and one family leading back to one root.
So get ready, Cousin, I’m coming for you. I’m done reaching back and I’m ready to reach forward. Let’s sit down and figure out all the places where our branches meet, our leaves brush up against each other, and our massive root system intertwines. Let’s sit down and chat. My house is ready for your visit, Cousin. Let’s fill out the dark spaces of our trees together.
Molly Jo Rose's column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God's goodness in the darkest places of the world.