What Do We “Really” Discover in Our Ancestors?

Why do we do it?

Why do we spend our time digging into the past, an exercise that is sure not to change the world in any meaningful way?

Journal Page, Francis Otto EgglestonWhy do we spend hours on end combing through dusty stacks or tussling with software that won’t bend to our will?

I know my answer. It’s simple. Because someone has to do it.

It’s because I have all of my birth family’s photos and memorabilia, and my siblings have hounded me for years to make copies for them, so I’m finally getting around to it.

But that’s not the real answer, is it? We both know it.

There’s a reason I’m the one who ended up with all the photos, after all. Because I have always been the one who has her nose stuck in old journals of my great-great grandfather or who sits picking through dog-earred photos of my un-labeled ancestral strangers that someone shoved in a box and forgot about long ago.

I go after my ancestors with bloodhound-like dedication.

It’s a way of grounding myself, of adding to my understanding of who I am. I want connection, I seek connection to the past “me’s.”

Peg Berryman autobio pg 1Because as much as I am an individual, I am also an amalgamation of all those who came before me.

That’s heredity. The simple idea that some of my traits – and maybe some of my most important traits – come from my birth family.

And so where did they come from?

A family line may pass down so much more than DNA-dependent traits.

A family passes down its way of looking at and living in the world. And if you’ve ever wondered why you do something a certain way, maybe it’s because of your great-great-grandfather.

At family get togethers my grandfather, always political and with a wry sense of humor, used to get the kids around him, and lead us in singing, “Vote the Democratic party in November, if you want to go to heaven when you die.” It still makes me laugh!

Through genealogical research I know now that he was raised by a staunch Democrat, who was in turn raised by another staunch Democrat.

There is a book I found called History of Allen County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens, published in 1906.

FOE sermonIn it I found a sketch about my great-grandfather saying, “Like his father, he is a Democrat, and has served as school director, justice of the peace, trustee, assessor and supervisor.”

Now I know that I come from at least four generations of staunch Democrats, and if I look hard enough maybe I can trace the propensity back further.

Family “traits” can take strange turns, too.

I heard a story one time about a family whose tradition it was to cut the Christmas ham in half before cooking it. That’s the way it was done and no one questioned why.

But a young member of the of the family asked. Her mother didn’t know, nor did her aunts, who all cut the ham thus so before baking as well.

So she asked her grandmother, and learned that as a young bride she had a small oven, and needed to cut the ham in two for it to fit.

These are the delightful stories we can uncover when we take interest in our forebears.

But does the information have any use to us? Probably not in proportion to the amount of work it takes to find it.Family Bible Letter to Clara Minerva Brown Eggleston

But that’s just talking in practicalities. It’s not “practical” to want to know more about yourself.

It’s not “practical” to spend your time digging through your past when you “should” be straightening a messy house or putting in a few extra hours at work.

That’s okay. I’m a self-diagnosed progonoplexic.

Progonoplexia is a condition marked by obsession with one’s ancestors.

It was coined to describe the modern Greek people’s preoccupation with their ancient past.

But heck, if those monuments and statues and writers and philosophers were mine, I’d be obsessed too. If one must be obsessed with anything, ancient Greece is one of the healthier choices I can think of.

I’m not sure I can say I’m “obsessed” with my past. But there is a great sense of satisfaction in discovering my forebears. Especially the ones of just two or three generations ago, near enough to have made a big difference in who I am.

F.O. Eggleston Poem in The Unitarian, September 1891.PNGYes, I am a staunch Democrat, like my father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great grandfather.

I also have a “tender heart” like my grandmother, or so says my mother.

I have courage, like my great uncle, who after shooting a grizzly bear in Alaska but being injured in the process and unable to make it back to camp, opened and slept inside the bear. (But I’ll go on record as saying I’m not that brave!)

And I am easily frustrated and distracted, like the great-grandfather who up and left his family and never returned. Again, the trait in me is diluted. I’m not that easily frustrated, but I’ve been told I don’t suffer fools.

My husband would say my genealogical pursuit is “internalizing,” which he equates with wheel-spinning. He thinks everyone should be externalizing, thinking and doing in the real world. But there’s room for both, and I do both.

What do we really discover in our ancestors? Ourselves. I know more about myself today than I did before starting my genealogical quest. And that has to be a good thing, right?


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