Genealogy is the study of family origins. People who study genealogies meticulously research family trees so that their own ancestry becomes clearer. Some study it because they want to know the history behind their family; others see it as a mystery or puzzle to unravel. With the advent of technology it has become much easier to find out records from city halls, courts and cemeteries. So, it is not strange that over the last decade the amount of people researching their family tree has grown quite dramatically.
This research is something that I have been around since my youngest childhood. Both my grandmother and mother have spent their lives delving deeply into the historical record to complete the branches of the Bennet and Wolverton lines of the family. This has cumulated in a couple of books on my shelf containing pictures, dates and locations of generations of my predecessors.
During most vacations we would make at least one stop to a hidden rural cemetery somewhere in Nebraska’s Western plains. With a sheet of names in our hands we would walk row to row seeking the birth or deceased date of someone named Nancy.
My grandmother worked on an electric typewriter compiling the first pages in these books. In the left corner a blank space remained to tape copies of black and white photos whenever. Listening to her talk about this list of names they would come to life. Of course from her lips we only heard the glorious relatives.
“Did you know that you were related to the wife of William Penn? “ she would say with obvious pride.
From war heroes to pioneers grandma always wanted to talk about the good in our ancestors. She continued this optimism even when the rest of us knew better. It seemed that she had expunged all the dirty laundry from the family history. All we had to do was look around at our very real relatives and family to know that this view could not be correct.
My mother, however, liked to tell the complete story of the good, bad and the ugly. I remember an old black and white picture on our wall in a an oval golden frame. The elderly couple looked like the type of hardened pioneers I had seen at the Nebraska Historical Society. The woman wore a white lace bonnet and had a dour expression posted on her face. The man had a hauntingly vacant look and a long grey beard. Grandmother would always excitedly explain that this particular couple had been early homesteaders. They had been the first in the family to move to the Nebraska territory and had heroically staked their claim in a wild and rugged land. Their picture was a particular source of pride.
So, I told my mother a story that my grandmother had related. She laughed and said, “You want to know the reason the great, great grandfather settled in Nebraska and wore that long, long beard?”
“Yes,” I answered eagerly.
“Well, your great great grandfather was a Civil War deserter and horse thief in his youth. He changed his name when he fled to Nebraska. The reason that he wore that beard most of his life was he was hiding from the law.”
That was the beginning of my education into the shadier branches of the family tree. Hidden in it was the Native American great grandmother whose name has been expunged from the historical record, the relative in Kansas who claimed that she talked to Spirits on the other side, the uncle who ran away to be a carnival worker at the circus, the grandfather who rode the rails with the hobos and the great, great, great grandfather that was made to wear a scarlet D around the town of Salem, Mass because of public drunkenness.
We are supposed to be ashamed of such common relatives, but I have always found something extraordinary in their all too ordinary character flaws and foibles. I feel a much more endearing link to them then the most regal and impressive of my lineage. There must be lessons in our ancestory, mysteries to be unlocked. Often we praise the important in our past, but I am convinced that there is as much to be learned from those who lurk in the grey shadows. As St. Bonaventure reminds us, there are sevenfold testimonies to the creator in all creatures. They are: origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fulness, activity and order. God is glorified even through our embarassment. Somehow we can witness God in all creation, even in those that we want to deny and blot from our memory. I guess when I can see God in those that I consider the least of these, then I have the possibility of seeing that same divinity within myself.
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