Sunday, August 11, 2013

What's The Point?

I get asked this by a lot of people, what is the point of genealogy? Of learning about people I never even knew? Do my colonial ancestors really have anything to do with me, besides some DNA? I've even seen genealogy enthusiasts question it themselves. What is it about this that we enjoy so much? For me, there are many reasons, among them are uncovering mysteries, upholding family tradition, finding parts of my self identity, personalizing history, and honoring the memories of my ancestors.

My grandmother, who would have loved
to learn about all my discoveries
of our tree.
Quite simply, I enjoy the research and detective-like work. It's exciting to spend hours, weeks, months, even years looking for something and then finally find it. It provides such a sense of accomplishment, as though connecting the dots and uncovering a mystery. Sure, the information I've uncovered may seem mundane to some, not exactly a great mystery that will change the world, and the task of getting there will be tedious to others, but we all have our hobbies and who is to say which hobby is more worthy than another?

But more importantly, for me, it's also about family tradition. I had picked up my family tree where my maternal grandmother had left off, with lots of information and photos that my mother had held on to and lovingly passed on to me. I had grown up surrounded by photographs of my ancestors on first my grandmother's walls and then my mom's and I'm sure someday, they'll be on mine. So immediately, this was something that was a part of my family, and therefore a part of me. It was important to me because it meant something to my mom and grandmother. When I work on my tree and make new discoveries, I can't wait to share them with my mom and we frequently agree that her mother would have loved to hear about them too. Working on our tree has become a family tradition in itself.

I know some people struggle to understand how the lives of people I never met (or anyone else that I knew had ever met) could be a part of my self identity so I'll attempt to explain. I started researching my ancestry not long after I moved to the UK to live with my English husband. I discovered that I had an English branch of my tree which came from an area only about a 45 minute drive from where I was living in England! There are many things about England (especially the north of England) which I have fallen in love with (not in the least of all, my husband) and so I started to feel an emotional tie to my English ancestors because I feel I understand and love their culture. Of course it's changed a lot since they lived here but after living here for 7 years myself, England has become a part of my self identity and that allows me to identify with English ancestors.

Old Mennonite Meeting House
in Germantown, Philadelphia.
Part of my family history, part of
my home.
At the same time, being so far from my native Pennsylvania, my heart really did grow fonder for it and so I was thrilled to discover that many of my tree branches have a long, strong history in Pennsylvania, particularly the Philadelphia region. I never realized until I left how this area has been a huge part of my self identity and so when I found out that I have some very early colonial ancestry in Philadelphia, it only strengthened the emotional ties I have to the area. They say that home is where the heart is and my heart is in Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, it can be easier to identify with more recent immigrants. My paternal grandmother, known to our family as Nan, though born in America, was 100% Italian with six siblings. For me, growing up in this family with so many Italian-American aunts, uncles, and cousins was a large part of my life. Nan's father had immigrated in the early 20th century when he was a teenager and though I never met him (he died before I was born), I grew up hearing stories about him and it was obvious how much my big-fat-Italian-family had respected and admired him. I wish I could have known him but the more I learn about him through my research, the more I feel like I did know him. Genealogy doesn't have to be about going back to the 17th century and learning about people who are so far removed from your world that it doesn't feel like there's any connection. Genealogy can be about your parents, your grandparents, or your great grandparents. It can be about the people who, if not a part of your immediate world, were probably a big part of the lives of the people who you do know and love. They are a part of your self identity, if not directly, then through the influences of others. Each generation is like a bridge, linking the generations on either side of them together, even if they were never linked in life.

My Italian great grandparents, who I never met but almost feel
I have, through family stories and research.
Does one have to know their heritage to complete their self identity? Of course not, but personally, it has become a part of mine.

The third reason I enjoy genealogy is because this is history, personalized. I have always had an interest in history and when I'm not researching my tree (or blogging about it), I'm usually reading a historical novel or history book. Genealogy takes this to a personal level, like when I discovered my ancestor's street was flooded in the 1907 Pittsburgh flood, or when I found a headstone of my ancestor's that says "A Soldier of 1812". These are historic events that are now a part of my own family history. I never had much of an interest in learning about the American Civil War but now that I know I had relatives who fought it in, I do want to know more.

The final reason I research my family tree is to honor the memories of my ancestors. Again, one might ask "why bother, if you never knew them?" Well, that's exactly why I do it. It really depresses me to consider that when I'm gone, and when everyone who knew and loved me is gone too, I will be completely forgotten to history, as though my life meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. I am an average person, I accept that I am probably not going to wind up doing anything so important as to get my name in a history book, but what I have difficulty accepting is that eventually I will be entirely forgotten, even to my descendants. And most of my ancestors were the same, they were average people just like me - but they laughed, they cried, they loved, they got angry. That is perhaps the biggest reason I do this, so that the lives of my ancestors won't be forgotten this way. Just because they may not have been famous doesn't mean their lives were meaningless because if they were, then mine is too and I don't believe that.

Perhaps some people still just don't get why I love it so much, maybe it's just different strokes for different folks, but those are my reasons. What are yours? Why do you spend all this time, energy, and money on this particular hobby?

1 comment:

  1. I would love to see all your writings made into a book. I know a few living relatives who would love it! Including me!