One of my favorite shows is Finding Your Roots on PBS. Right now the program focuses on famous people who invariably find information about their ancestors that they never knew. Some of it is quite exciting and some is quite depressing. Whatever the story, it is a moving experience to learn more about the people from whom one has descended. Invariably those being featured become quite emotional about the information that they learn for the first time.
I suppose that each of us has a kind of longing to know more about our ancestry. I’ve researched mine for years now and I keep hitting a brick wall when it comes to most of my forebears, but especially my paternal grandfather. I wish I had taken more interest in tying his stories down to specific facts while I had the opportunity to talk with him. I need to know names and places and relationships that I never thought to ask him to convey. Now I am filled with very specific questions the answers of which might unlock the story of one fourth of the people who came before me.
I recently read an article espousing the idea that each of us should leave a written record of our lives for the descendants who will one day follow us. Every life is important and I can’t imagine anything that would bring me as much joy as actually finding a written self portrait of one of my ancestors. Of course I realize that the reality is no doubt that few if any of them were ever educated enough to learn to read or write. Nonetheless, even one document would be a treasure for me and my children and grandchildren.
I imagine finding a diary or a sheaf of letters written by an ancestor. Even a small family tree with names and dates would be proof of a life. Instead I only know about my mother and father and a tiny bit about my grandparents. I suppose that writing about them will fall to me. At least it will provide those who come after me with impressions of the people that I have most loved and perhaps from my writings they will be able to understand who I have been as a person better than if there were no stories at all.
My maternal grandmother was illiterate but I have traced our mutual ancestry all the way back to medieval Vikings in Norway. I know that her father fought in the Union Army during our Civil War. I can speak of where her mother was buried and the church that she attended. I see our roots in England and the early days of the American colonies. It is a rich and interesting history that gives me a better idea of how I became the person that I am.
I at least know that my maternal grandparents came from the region that is now the country of Slovakia. I know who their parents and great grandparents were. I have proof that they were baptized as Catholics. I know where they were born and how they traveled on a steamship to come to America. I have access to my grandfather’s naturalization information. Later I even have copies of yearbook pages that featured my mother when she was in high school.
Only my paternal grandfather remains a puzzle. He explained how is mother died shortly after he was born and he gave me a name for his father. In all of my searches I have found nothing to indicate that his father ever lived or that the grandmother who supposedly raised him existed either. I know who his guardian was after his grandmother died. Grandpa claimed he was an uncle, but nothing in the man’s family tree indicates any kind of connection with my grandfather. It is true that the guardian graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and subsequently died while on active duty Puerto Rico. None of his ancestors have ever heard anything about my grandfather being his charge.
We would all do well to write autobiographies of ourselves to hand down to our children. I can’t think of anything that would be more of a treasure. I have written a book which is mostly about my mother, but I need to begin working on my own story, a kind of diary of my experiences and my thoughts. It almost sounds like a fun project that is long overdue. I might even turn it into an actual gift for my children and grandchildren. These days it’s fairly easy to find someone who will design a book cover and bind a few copies for little expense. It would be something quite special that I would think would also be exceedingly therapeutic for me.
I’ve lived through some quite interesting times that now seem like the long ago to young people. A hundred years from now my journey will sound quite ancient and maybe a little bit interesting. I’m ready to begin. Maybe I might even turn my story into a series by writing a bit each day for my blog. Who knows even my readers might find my ordinary life a bit unique. I think I will begin.