Thursday, March 27, 2008

Where we came from

The picture I posted yesterday is one of my favorites. In that photograph, my grandparents were young and full of life and hope. My grandmother glowed with the health of her pregnancy, and my grandfather had that same handsome, determined stare. I don't have any photos of my paternal grandfather. He died when my father was quite young. All I know is that he had a bad temper and died from some sort of stomach cancer. My paternal grandmother lived to be 97 and never married again.

My grandmother in the photograph, though, was a progressive woman. She believed in voting and argued with my other grandmother about that. She was active in her community and was strong-willed. They were good people, and they were gone too soon. They had two children, my uncle and my mother, at a time when most farm families were having large broods. I never asked why they only had two children, but perhaps it was because my mother was sickly. Or maybe my grandmother just didn't want more children.

I've always been fascinated with my roots, but I haven't taken the time to dig very far back genealogically speaking. I know that one family tree, from my maternal grandfather's side, goes back to the 1600s. My husband's family has a tree that traces his paternal roots back to Hungary in the 1800s. His mother's tree goes back to royalty in Scotland. My side is mostly English, Irish, Dutch, and Welsh, from what I've been told, with a little Cherokee thrown in.

This all begs the question, though, who are we? Are we our ancestors? Does it really matter where we came from? After all, I am not my ancestors. I don't live in Europe. In fact, I have yet to go there (but it's on my list). I wonder if it's just natural curiosity or if it's because none of us Americans feel like we know much about who we are. We are born and live in the melting pot, but we long to know our roots.

This all came up the other night at the dinner table. My husband and I were discussing politics and how disappointed we are in Barack Obama's comments (and his wife's comments) which would indicate more of an affinity for "African culture" than for American pride and culture. Pundits on CNN are defending Obama's minister, saying that we just don't understand the African culture.

Excuse me, what culture? How many of those in the congregation actually came from Africa? How many have even been there? Do they want to go live in Sierra Leone? In Darfur? I understand having some curiosity and pride in your roots, but come on. This is the 21st century in America. I'm not bemoaning what happened to my poor, starving relatives who came here to escape famine, religious oppression, or boredom.

I mean, I don't want to start a war with my blog, but think about it. What does it say when we are focused more on past generations than on the present? How can we change things and move forward if we are still identifying with the nations and religions of our distant ancestors? Who are we, really?

I was born in Georgia (small town) to poor parents. I grew up in Texas (big city) with a father who worked hard to put food on the table. I married and moved to North Carolina (Marine Corps base) and later to Maryland (for work). I never met or knew any of those distant ancestors of mine. I don't know what they went through. I don't know how they felt, who they were, what their hopes and dreams might have been. All I know is today. All I know is who I am. And really, isn't that a darned good start?

Peace - D


Shrinky said...

Oh Momma,

Here speaks the voice of sanity. I'm not saying we should dismiss the lives and lessons from those who have gone before us, but to keep the past where it rightfully belongs - BEHIND US, and to live in the present, is a far more healthy, positive way to enjoy a happy life. Too many folk seem to choose to lug the baggage of their past around to poison their present.

lime said...

hi momma, thanks for stopping by my place.

just a thought or two. as yo upoint out you can trace your family heritage back to the 1800s and 1600s on either side and you know the cultural makeup of your ancestors and you are content with that. i hadn't really thought about it until i started reading about the dna mapping being offered to african americans recently but unless they emigrated here from african by choice they don't know what their specific cultural heritage is (that is, what specific ethnic group or region of the continent they come from). all they know is they were descended from slaves. i am adopted and therefore know little about my own heritage so in a way i can understand their own curiosities and i can see how it might lead them to cling to whatever it is that makes them unique and they can feel pride about. when you know those things about yourself you can rest in it and you don't really think about it. it just is. when you don't know those things about yourself it can make you feel restless and curious. i don't know if that makes sense or not, but for what it's worth....

in any event good thought provoking post. good questions to ask. interesting things to consider. thanks for sharing some of your story with us. :)

Maggie May said...

Thanks for this very thought provoking post. We can also go way back on my parent's side and it is interesting to see photos & learn how they lived.
I must say, that I agree with you as regards this trend of learning the culture of your ancestors, whether or not that is relevant to the present. Seems to cause more division somehow.
If a child is from 2 cultures, like my grand daughters, then I think it is important to learn about both & learn the 2 languages. But if their cultural link goes back to a remote point in time, then I can't see the advantage at all.
I suppose most people want to know their roots.

Josie said...

(Applause, applause). That was very well said, and very true. Your post should be in the editorial section of every newspaper so everyone can read it. I am a second and third generation Canadian. But first and foremost I am a Canadian. I am not Irish Canadian or Dutch Canadian.

How can a person be a good forward-looking leader, if he is looking out the rearview mirror?

Good luck with your elections. The whole world is watching!

Not Afraid to Use It said...

How sad that Shrinky has such a terribly negative attitude. She seems to be the kind of person that many in my family are. Bitter and "poisonous" (as she puts it) who withhold information in the guise of "living in the present" rather than sharing special stories of their family. I suspect she must have a sad and bitter past. How much better to tell those stories so the bad things are not repeated.

As a history teacher and a kick-ass genealogist (in my pre-mommy life), I have always said that you do not know where you are going (or appreciate what you have) if you don't know where you came from.

Granted, the farther back you go in time, the less likely those people and occupations will have influence on your present. However, I want my kids to know the grandmother that I knew. She will not likely be living when they are teenagers. But I want them to hear her stories and know the person that she was. I do not want her to be "just some old dead relative" to them. I want to teach them respect and appreciation for their family. Some of us just take it back a few more generations than others.

And in all honesty, once you get into true genealogy, it is more than just "family baggage" as Shrinky put it. The detective/riddle-solving aspect of it is very alluring. To go into old churches and and see old records. To piece clues together until EUREKA! I FOUND IT!! is very, very addictive. I suspect it is very similar to people who are private investigators. The solving these mysteries is such a high. There is really nothing like it.

Don Mills Diva said...

It's a good start indeed. This is a really thought-provoking post. I think I've have always taken pride in my Irish heritage because maybe it makes me seem more interesting in a way - at the heart of it I'm a Canadian through and through.

Daryl E said...

To Not Afraid to Use it: I think you need to re-read Shrinky's remarks. She is not negative or poisonious. What I read: she believes we need to let go of the past and not let it ruin the present.

How is that terribly negative? Sounds like good advice to me.