I’ve been studying my family tree for 10 years. It started off as a way of finding out what had happened to a close relative who’d been lost for over 30 years. Today I sit with the histories of relatives from across the world, and the questions I have about their lives sometimes keep me awake at night.
Most people don’t understand why I do it – their eyes glaze over and they start drooling when I mention it. If they’re not bored by it, they’re often offended. “Why does it matter?” “What are you trying to prove?”
Does it matter? To me, yes. But not in the way they think.
In a country like ours, our history (and present) so fraught with inhumanity, why am I celebrating the lives of settlers, colonizers, racists?
I’m not celebrating. I’m not proud. You can’t be proud of people you’ve never met, especially those you know were in the wrong. All you can do is recognise that where you are now, comes in part from a million decisions made by thousands of people hundreds of years before you.
There are those who study ancestry for the family crests and the illustrious relatives and the hope of finding royalty or riches. That stuff is boring. I’m much more interested in the ordinary people.
The good, the bad, the ugly, all inextricably connected – by choice, by force, by circumstance – resulting in me. Here I am today – and someone, 300 years ago on another continent might have had my eyes. Or my skew nose or hitchhiker’s thumb. History is real, when it’s viewed through the eyes of ordinary people. Racism, patriarchy, genocide, slavery, rape, insanity, abuse, struggle, love, family, striving… in your DNA, across generations and continents. History becomes human.
The 18th century Polish rabbi and Angolan slave. The Scottish maid and Dutch thief. The English grave-digger and Dutch holocaust victim. The Robben Island lepers. The slaves, teachers, servants, soldiers, bakers and farmers. Completely different worlds, spanning hundreds of years and entire chapters of your history book. All came together, somehow, to me.
I’m the product of those who came before me, for better or worse. I can try to understand them better. Example: my mother and her mom had a somewhat difficult relationship at times. So did my dad and his mother.
When you start digging deeper, you realise that my mom was the first woman in 5 or 6 generations to have grown up with her mother. Every other woman along the matrilineal line lost her mother when she was still a child. Not one of them had a template to base her own mothering on. Not one of them knew what it WAS to have a mother, or be a mother. When you know that, you begin to understand granny a bit better. You begin to see her as an individual – with her own life and struggles and reasons for doing things.
Understanding doesn’t mean excusing.
Genealogy also means accepting everything you find. The incestuous relationships, the “marriages” between slaves and slave-owners which could by definition never be equal or happy, the knowledge that you have in you both oppressor and oppressed of all kinds, and finally the acknowledgment that where you are today is just so much accidental chance. Where you’re going, sure, that’s up to you. But where you started – the tiniest different choice hundreds of years ago and you’d be someone else. Or not be at all.
That’s a big thought.
So genealogy for me is about perspective. I fit, somehow, into this tiny sliver of space and time. Like others have before me and still more will after me.
I want to understand.