Friday, April 29, 2011

Great Expectations

With the recent proliferation of Genealogy-as-Television-Entertainment, I have been interested to watch other people being introduced to both their ancestors and The Search. Celebrities and "regular" people, alike.

Having been introduced to genealogy at an early age, and growing up in a community where Family History is a cultural pastime, I used to think everyone knew who their grandparents were, and their great-grandparents, too. When I moved out into the rest of the world, I found this wasn't the case. I have helped a few friends along the way to get started on their Family History.

Many people hope to find royalty or other famous historical figures on their tree. Others express a preference over which side of their family they wish to research. Both in "real life" and on TV, I have heard people say "I'm not interested in that side--they're no good".

I watched a storyteller named Chimamanda Adichie in a youtube video titled "The danger of The Single Story" (very worthwhile-just google the title). She illustrates how we tend to categorize people by just a narrow set of facts, and end up missing out on opportunities to learn from or be enriched by those around us.

Should I be mortified to find a photo of my 3x great-grandfather in prison stripes ? Should I be ashamed of the wild women on my mother's side ? Should I wave like a banner my Mayflower ancestor ? If my grandmother survived a winter in the depression by living in a grain silo, does that mean she never went to a dance with a boy ?

These facts about my ancestors are not their whole story.

One of the men in this picture was indeed my great-great-great-gandfather. He was imprisoned when the United States passed the law making polygamy illegal, and he would not denounce the wives he had already married. He also earned the respect of local Native American leaders in both frontier towns he settled. He composed poetry and hymns, though he could not spell, and could barely write.

The wild women on my mother's side ? The same ones who sent money home to their mother to buy a house? Or gave their father a car ? The one who drove back and forth every weekend for nearly a year to bring her hospitalized sister home to be with the family ? Sure they did things that shock me, but I proudly identify with their headstrong spirits.

That Mayflower pilgrim ? If he truly is my ancestor, do I chalk him as one of the "good guys" ?

I love getting to know my ancestors. Some are easily categorized as heroes, others need careful handling, but they are all real people to me. I find something in all of them that I would like to find in myself.