Lessons from Genealogy

Lately, my father has been doing a lot of research into his family tree. Going back 300 years into the past, he is on a quest to understand what made his father and his father’s father the type of men that they were. And in the process, I suspect, he is also trying to understand with more clarity who he himself is.

The genealogy kick makes perfect sense for my father, who has always been a history buff. A love of history is one of the good things that I inherited from him (if you can inherit a hobby!). He reads history books, old and new. He watches documentaries. And he is always good for a discussion on some subset of the history of America.

None of these people are related to me. It's a Great Depression stock photo.

None of these people are related to me. It’s a Great Depression stock photo.

In his personal search, he keeps coming upon new discoveries that enlighten his understanding of his family. For example, last week he and my mother found the East Texas site of land that his great-grandfather farmed. Nearby, he also discovered a place that might have led his grandfather to quit farming and join the oil field workforce during the Roaring 20’s.

My dad is also discovering different things about the convictions of his ancestors. Some of them were highly religious β€” stout Baptists on the frontier of church expansion in Texas. Others were blue collar blokes, working the oil fields of Louisiana and Texas, and experiencing a breaking down of their bodies and hearts. Some owned slaves. Some did not. One even played baseball. Another loved to sit by the fireplace in her chair.

I know some people who give a “Who cares?” about genealogy (and history in general). “They’re dead. I didn’t know ’em. Move on.” But researching history is not a static, cold exercise. Once you start learning things about someone, names jump off a page and they become real people. People who lived through history you never saw, did some remarkable and courageous (or infamous) things, and paved the way for your life today.

I told my father the other day β€” after hearing his latest family findings β€” that I am deeply fascinated at how the lives of those who came before us influence the lives that we currently live. The farming decision that his grandfather made in 1920-something, for example, led to a completely different way of life for his children. My grandmother did not grow up on a farm. She didn’t marry a farmer and raise their children on a farm. That one decision by my great-grandfather influenced his children, their children, and so on.

I’m also fascinated by the emotional (some would also say “moral”) aspect of decisions made by my ancestors. For example, alcoholism, in several forms, runs through both my ancestral families (maternal and paternal). My dad recently found out about some less-than-godly traits of the men in his family tree. Some decisions ruined relationships. Those sour relationships affected other relationships to the third and fourth generations. Like most families, I’d imagine, there are underlying emotional wounds that go back a long way in my family. My dad has had to deal with some of them his whole life. Because they affected him, they have affected me, too, and my relationship with him.

We cannot change the past. Not without a time machine, anyway! Even then, some sort of paradox would likely occur in which all of civilization gets shifted into an alternate universe…. eh…. (I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who and Star Trek). We cannot change the past. But we also cannot use the past as an excuse to sabotage the present. Our past wounds do not need to, nor should they, define who we are. There is no, “My father did this to me, so I’m not responsible for … X in my life.” You are responsible for you and I am responsible for me.

Even so, isn’t it interesting how the past affects the present? As my dad continues to unravel the layers of his family’s past (and, thus, mine) my fascination with the past-present connection only grows.