Genealogy–Seeking Connections Past and Future
How much do we know about our own parents, let alone grandparents? To one degree or another the lives of our parents remain a mystery. Some families assign the responsibility of “family historian” to a designated relative to create and maintain a family tree. Our daughter, Maya, has just been entered into her husband’s family tree, immediately after her wedding. We are at a loss ourselves about our family trees. Keith, for a high school project about family history, found faces on the Internet that remotely looked like us and made up first names (and some last names) for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents on a family tree. Doug’s brother hired a genealogist/historian from a local university to interview their ailing father and write his biography as a Christmas present for all members of the family. But, for even those who know the names, places of birth, and names of children of past generations of relatives, that does not mean one can claim to know their essential experiences, only external facts.
Genealogy has become a growth industry. Partly this is due to fundamental shifts in U.S. demographics, increases in Internet social networking, primetime television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and documentaries about remote parents and their “hidden” lives. The target user for family history databases is 45- plus, an age-group that is growing rapidly. Advancements in scanning technology and indexing operations have facilitated online-record accessibility and searchable indexes available through websites like USGenWeb.org, Archives.com and FamilySearch.org. Analysts project that blogging about genealogy will double in growth by the end of this year.
In addition, the seasonal spike in online genealogy searches starts around Halloween and continues through January or February (according to Google search analysts) due to pending holiday celebrations with family. But family history is an interest to many of us in an ongoing process of seeking meaning. The ultimate need is not a fact or date, but to create a larger narrative, connect with others in the past and in the present, and to find continuity in one’s own life with not only the past but the future.
We conduct genealogical research not only to better understand our roots and to get to know ancestors as people. Connecting through time with our forebears is a means of personalizing the past, carving out a place for one’s family in the larger historical perspective, a sense of responsibility to our children and grandchildren, and preserving collective memories.
For some of us who can no longer ask our parents or grandparents about their stories, there is a poor substitute for learning about our forebears: genetic genealogy— a person’s DNA. Websites like 123andme.com, decode.com and navigenics.com promises to provide a complete genome of the customer, screen for the likelihood of developing an inherited disease, and describe information passed down relatively unchanged from early ancestors. Sites like the National Geographic project trace migratory pathways out of Africa, based upon a cheek swab mailed to their headquarters. While this is no personal connection with the past or future, it is a more universal signature of how the human race is connected in its birthplace Africa. Or, is all this interest in genealogy just a thinly disguised attempt to leave a mark after death for future generations– that we did in fact exist, if only as a square on a chart of the family tree?