A few people have mentioned to me in recent weeks about having an interest in genealogy. Mike Garner was one. Mike is a storytelling professional who has dated his ancestry back hundreds of years.
Which got me wondering… why have I never really bothered to look into mine?
It could be that I’m simply lazy. My dad has mapped out much of our recent family lineage back to the mid 1850’s. I don’t particularly feel the need to revisit or build on it. It could also be that I am a tremendous narcissist only primarily interested in my own affairs!
I’ve recently been reading The Mistress’s Daughter, the memoir of author A.M. Homes. Homes was adopted at birth only for her biological mother to make contact out of the blue in her teens. Later in the book she describes her frantic genealogical research into both her adoptive and biological roots. For Homes these were burning questions of identity:
“What becomes clear is that all of this is about narrative – the story told. I can’t escape the oddity of how it happened that I, a person without a past, became a novelist, a story teller working from my imagination to create lives that never existed. Every family has a story that it tells itself that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates; some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.”
So what do I know about my family story? I know we’re primarily a family of workers. On my Dad’s side my Dad and grandmother both worked at the Lever Brothers factory in Port Sunlight (originally a soap factory, now a part of Unilever). My Mum worked as a podiatrist in the NHS for many years before branching into private work. My maternal grandfather worked in a blood testing lab. He worried endlessly about my uncle being out of work, even though my uncle owns his own home, lives alone and is practically semi retired.
All of this is NOT conductive to risk taking and entrepreneurial gambles! In that regard I am the black sheep of the family. Even so, I am a good worker and a poor entrepreneur. I’m constantly having to unlearn things I thought I knew about myself.
I have the nagging sense I should be more interested in my family history. For me it holds more passive interest than active interest. Unlike A.M. Homes I don’t have burning unanswered questions about my immediate relatives. My ambivalence however seems at odds with my line of work.
Perhaps it depends on the questions that hold your attention. I’m compelled by the idea that if you travel back in time far enough (and in fact not even that far), we’re all loosely related to each other anyway. “Mitochondrial Eve”, the supposed last common ancestor of everyone alive today, lived approximately 155,000 years ago. A mere blink of existence in the history of the Earth.
My focus is more on the survival and flourishing of the human species at large. As podcast guest Derek Dearden argues, we have the opportunity to create a world that works for everybody. If my kids live to the year 2100, they’ll be 78 and 80. What world will they live in by then? What world will their descendants live in? Those are the questions that occupy my mind.
For me, genealogy is closely tied to self awareness. One benefit of telling stories is to become more aware of the narratives, assumptions and biases that drive you. It’s a rinse and repeat exercise, a never-ending work in progress.
I can offer very little prescriptive advice other than to argue that your family story may inform more of your perspective and decision making than you perhaps think it does.
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