Warning that what he was about to explain would cause eyes to cloud over with boredom, I recently heard someone say his subject was as interesting as listening to someone else's genealogy. How true, and yet tracing family history has turned into a national obsession.
In some cultures, Japan for instance, it has long been the practice to record and celebrate past generations with a religious fervency. It's hard to say exactly why this is. It may be as simple as a child's need to understand who she is by asking again and again about the circumstances of her birth. It may have something to do with the deep desire in each of us to reassure ourselves that life advances in an endless progression, that we are links in a strong chain that clanks along into the future just as surely as it slides into the past.
It also seems to me that, for better or worse, an interest in genealogy is a sign our culture has reached a certain stage of maturity. All the American generations before ours had new physical horizons to explore, putting a premium on individual courage and initiative. In a nation where children grew up and promptly moved ever westward, often never again seeing parents and birthplaces, forgetting family may have helped minimize the pain of separation. Somehow bound up in our migratory instinct, we Americans believe in self creation, interestingly regarding great men as having sprung out of nowhere. With the exception of professional biographers, few ever stop to think about the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who surrounded Albert Einstein, Abe Lincoln or Mark Twain. We almost don't want to know, for fear the facts will interfere with our unadulterated admiration. We're a little bit the same about our own families, afraid of what uncomfortable or inconvenient facts we will find.
But as we settle into a crowded world where no blank spaces remain on maps, many of us are feeling an irresistible urge to map our families, to place ourselves within the context of ancestors whose countless interlocking decisions resulted in the lives we inhabit today. We literally are the sum of the stories of our people. To live without knowing where we came from would be like walking around half asleep in a dark room, feeling the shapes of things but never seeing them for what they are.
I'm sure another part of the reason genealogy is now so popular is it has become infinitely easier with the advent of the Internet and
e-mail. My dad was genuinely interested in family history and I'm very grateful to him for the file he left me containing what we knew or suspected about our origins. Boy, I wish he was still alive to share in all I've recently learned. But his efforts were severely hampered by living in an isolated community without even any very easy ways of finding addresses to write away for vital records. In comparison, we today live in the golden age of genealogy, when anyone with access to a computer is almost certain to discover long-lost relations in thousands of free and subscription databases. Furthermore, there exists on-line a virtual college curriculum of helpful genealogical advice for those just getting started. I realize not everyone has a computer or the money to subscribe to Web sites like Ancestry.com, but access can be obtained at most public libraries. Family History Centers sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - nearby ones are located in Long Beach and Astoria, for example - are very helpful to everyone and draw upon the world's richest trove of genealogical information.
If you feel the urge to start the endless but also endlessly fascinating task of playing detective for your family's past, the one key thing to do is begin writing down what you know. Interview family members, especially older generations, to capture their knowledge of ancestors and recollections of life. Don't wait until they're dead and then spend your life regretting you didn't record their colorful stories. Copy down or tape every detail, and have them identify everyone they recognize in family photos, writing the information on the backs. Get to it now; future generations will bless your heart.
For me, the real pleasure of genealogy is in restoring common people to living memory, not in searching out royalty or revolutionaries to brag about. For nearly all of human history, life was a hard struggle. Knowing my family's sawmill workers, miners, farmers and carpenters makes me prouder than I can say. I thank them in the only way I know how, by remembering.