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By Leyla Zuaiter
Every night after their “day jobs,” millions of men and women in the United States and other countries, sneak away from their spouses and turn on the computer, eagerly writing long, passionate letters, sending and receiving photos, and sharing juicy morsels. Wait a minute though. It’s not what you think. They are engaged in the SECOND- most frequent use of the Internet: researching their family history and genealogy
What is it about this subject that has hooked so many people around the world? I will let an earlier version of myself answer that question. Here is an excerpt from a long letter to my far-flung relatives when the documents I had could be counted on one hand, in which I introduced my project, summarized what I knew and asked for their cooperation.
"I wish I could convey to you how very fascinating this endeavour is proving to be! It’s like being a detective, sifting through information, finding a clue here and there—a name, a date, a place name, a photo, following leads, and making connections."
Judging from the number of sites on the Internet devoted to Genealogy, it appears I am not alone in my interest in this subject. In this rapidly changing world, almost nothing remains constant. It is hard to feel an over-riding sense of belonging to one particular affiliation: we intermarry with those of different ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and faiths, we move around the globe for family, political or career-related reasons and the physical world around us is changed beyond recognition by “development”, war, etc. Some of this is stimulating and enriching in many respects. However, in this relativistic environment, we lack anchors. One thing that is unchangeable is our ancestry, whatever it may be.
Working on Family History suddenly renders what we normally think of as abstract or impersonal subjects—history, geography, climatology, literature, art, and music—in short almost any subject---intensely personal. We read history books or historical novels and watch historical movies without ever associating them with ourselves. But suddenly History becomes fascinating as we seek to see how it is entwined in the lives of our ancestors! Suddenly our ancestors are more than just names: we realize they are individuals who lived at a certain time and place. We begin to wonder what kind of house they lived in, who lived in their household, what they worried about, what they ate and wore etc. Then we realize that if we can figure out what place, approximate time, social group and class they belonged to, we could actually come to have at least an idea through a bit of research. Geographical factors, such as the mountainous terrain our ancestors lived on or the tendency for a river to overflow its banks, for example, had consequences on their lives. Knowledge of our ancestors can also guide our choices in art and literature, and we discover authors and artists—many famous or mainstream—who undertook works related to the locales of our ancestors.
The further back we go in time, the more ancestors we have in more places in the world. Did you realize that every generation the number of your ancestors doubles? You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents, thirty-two great great great grandparents, sixty-four great great great great grandparents, and one hundred and twenty eight great great great great great grandparents. Thus for those of my generation, there are 64 ancestors in [earliest known ancestor on one line’s generation.
To work on genealogy and family history is to contemplate one’s own mortality, but also to bring us a heightened sense of awareness and appreciation of the present, and the times we live in. Our life and death are imbued with meaning when seen in the context of a link in the chain of past and future generations—as something greater than ourselves. My aunt, who was named executor of an old woman’s estate, said that after six months all that was left of the vibrant person she knew were a few legal papers. We can rescue our ancestors from the fate of sinking without a trace into the ocean of oblivion by trying to preserve what is known about them if not actually doing research about them. The same applies to ourselves. In doing so, who knows which of our descendents we will inspire or provide needed direction, identity and comfort?
An African proverb says that when an elderly person dies, whole libraries of knowledge are lost. Each generation has its role to play. The oldest living generation, for example, can describe life first-hand in 1940’s but their children can’t. This generation remembers a thousand details of what life was like at that time and place, which are so much a part of them that they never tried to put them into words. They may have told their children a few stories over the years, which form part of their memories, but perhaps only vague ones. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will have, if they are lucky, only a few treasured fragments of their grandparent’s stories, and so on…..
This article first appeared on AEI's Bethlehem Genealogy and Family History Website.