As you might have noticed, I’ve recently become interested in my family history. However, the more I dig into it, the more I understand that you have to approach it unscientifically like the grab-bag of information it truly is. You really just have to close your eyes, reach in, hope for the best, and see what you find. Unless you have a very analytical, persistent, and patient mind, and you’ve decided to make family ancestry your life’s work, you’re absolutely doomed if you take a methodical approach.
Just think about it: you’ve got four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents, thirty-two great great great grandparents, and so on. It’s exponentially complicated, especially when you consider brothers and sisters, second wives, births, deaths, locations, stories, photos, etc. If you’re the kind of person who gets distressed when you’re working on a puzzle with most of the pieces missing, this activity is not for you.
Thankfully other people in my own family have enjoyed doing this kind of insanely meticulous research, so I’ve got all sorts of beautiful, mysterious little fragments of stories. Here are a few:
One of my grandfathers way back down the line on my father’s side was a Scotsman named William Cunningham. He was married and living in Scotland with his two kids when his first wife died. For some reason he made the decision to go to Cork, Ireland for work and left his kids in the care of his parents in Scotland. He began working at Tobin shipyard in Cork, where he eventually met and married Lady Tobin, daughter of the shipyard owner. They eventually had a daughter and relocated to Canada. Now, I have to ask myself: 1) Why did William leave his family in Scotland – was there a shortage of work? 2) What would possess a presumably wealthy Irish woman to fall in love with a presumably scrappy Scottish shipyard worker? Was it an unlikely, forbidden romance? Were they forced to run away to Canada? And finally, 3) Was William ever reunited with his other kids? The interesting thing is that no matter how much research I could do, I’m unlikely to ever uncover the whole story.
Another distant grandfather on my father’s side was said to be the first white male born to a settler family in upper Michigan and, as the story goes, some of the Ojibwe Native Americans in that part of the country gave him a pony as a gift. While this story sounds slightly unbelievable and embellished, I know there’s at least some truth to it – my family had contact with the Native Americans there and we are still in possession of several Bibles written entirely in the Ojibwe language.
On my mother’s German side of the family, a gardener in Hamburg in the 1700’s relocated his family to Russia where they stayed 100 years before immigrating to the United States. There are stories to be uncovered and told about the difficult ship voyage to the United States at Ellis Island where last names were changed and Americanized, about families staking a claim on land in Oklahoma land run, about wild west pioneers living in dugouts (homes built into the earth), and even about Grapes-of-Wrath-esque treks to California during the Oklahoma dust bowl and Great Depression.
Truly, if we went back far enough, we’d discover that we are all related. In fact, scientists have pretty much proven it through genetic research. It’s an astonishing thought. What if I applied that concept and made a conscious decision to view the person next to me as a brother or a sister, no matter how diverse? It might dramatically change the way I treat and view others, especially people who are different, and people who are hard for me to love.
But what really strikes me about all of these startling and oddly familiar faces looking out at me from the past is that all of these countless people, places and events eventually converged into one person: me. I’m keenly aware of how precarious and fragile life is, and was, especially in the past. Awful tragedies were commonplace; children died of plague, young men died in war, and mothers died in childbirth. Just one untimely death of an ancestor, and my particular configuration of DNA – my mind and soul and what makes me “me” – wouldn’t be here. Sometimes my history is born out of an apparent tragedy – for example a first wife dies and a great great grandmother of mine is the second wife. It’s strange to think that the death of the first wife needed to have happened or I simply wouldn’t exist.
Assuming that I believe that my existence is not an accident, I am forced to conclude that all of that messy and sometimes tragic history was not an accident either. It doesn’t make life and death easier to manage and deal with, to be sure. But the realization seems to add a final hopeful harmonic chord to complete and resolve an otherwise dissonant, melancholy song. I choose to connect my past, present and future together into a much larger meta-narrative. It’s a narrative that I could never hope to fully grasp or understand in this lifetime. But I choose to believe. I believe that everything has had, does have, and will have, a resounding final purpose.