This fall, I suddenly became fascinated with my ancestry. It all started when my husband and I went to see Skyfall, the latest James Bond film. The movie’s final showdown was filmed in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands, and there was something about the landscape that stirred me to the point of telling Erick, “Once the kids leave home, I’d love to visit Scotland.”
My reaction to the Scottish landscape was similar to the reaction I had to the landscape of Tanzania on my first visit to Africa. I’d always attributed my sense of heart-recognition in Tanzania (which is certainly not a unique experience) to the fact that human life probably began somewhere near where I was standing. In other words, I had this response to Africa because my DNA recognized the place.
It seems to me that a fascination with the past typically occurs twice in life. The first is in late elementary school, with the obligatory school project of mapping one’s family tree; this timing tends to coincide with the beginning of puberty, and it’s convenient to use family history as a peg upon which to hang your just-forming identity.
The second round of ancestor research usually comes much later in life. Making sure that every branch of the family tree is accurately filled, that oral histories are recorded, and that cemeteries are cataloged seems to be the domain of the elderly. My guess is that this is a way of insuring an orderly system into which we can be inserted when we pass on.
I am no longer in elementary school, so I can only conclude that my interest in my family’s past means that I’m officially old.
After I saw those stirring film images of the Scottish Highlands, I recalled what little family history I’d learned during my own elementary school ancestry project. I don’t know much about my father’s ancestors, although his family immigrated fairly recently, around the turn of the 20th century from the countryside near Naples, Italy to work in the leather factories of Lawrence, Massachusetts. There’s much more information about my mother’s side, perhaps because those ancestors immigrated centuries ago and it takes time to become nostalgic for what you left behind. I recalled a morning spent with my mother in the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, D. C., researching the McDuffie branch of her family.
Now we have the internet, so it didn’t take me long on Google to learn that the McDuffie family came from somewhere near Argyll, Scotland – not too far from Skyfall’s Glencoe setting. The forbears of Grace McDuffie probably arrived in Rochester, New Hampshire around 1715. Grace’s son, Richard, was my maternal grandfather.
What does all this mean for me today? I happen to like the landscape where a handful of my ancestors once lived – big deal! I spend most of my days tethered to the wheel of a minivan or typing at a computer; is it relevant that I’m descended from farmers and factory workers? Will looking back at their patchy history shed any new light on who I am? My first ancestor to set foot in North America seems to have been John Meader, who arrived in Oyster River, New Hampshire from Dorset, England in 1647, seeking religious freedom or plentiful farmland – or both. Did he look back?
My husband is a mystery to me because he seems to exist outside of his own history. He has very few memories of his childhood, and displays no interest in his past – neither bitterness nor nostalgia. When his father gave us a two-volume history about Erick’s great-grandfather – the first Gong to arrive in North America from China – I was the one who read it. Erick’s stance is that looking back is an excuse people use to avoid taking personal responsibility for their lives.
But I don’t know about that. It’s generally a good thing to go through life with some self-awareness, and we’re all part of a history. People came before us, and we carry bits of them inside of us. Maybe learning your family history can be a way of taking personal responsibility, instead of an outlet for placing the blame; rather than I’m a jerk because my great-uncle was a jerk, we can say: My great-uncle was a jerk, so I’d better keep an eye out for jerk-ish tendencies.
And then we move on, because this little life we have may continue our ancestors’ story, but at this moment it’s OUR story. Understanding the forces that shaped us before we had any control, but moving forward knowing what we can control: I believe that’s called “growing up.”
In the end, there’s a limit to the understanding that looking back can give. Family history, like human history, tends to be a big mess. It’s full of deaths and divorces and tragedies and hurt feelings. Every family has its jerks; every family has its saints. Why did that marriage fail when this one survived? Why did he die young while she lived to an old age? How does it shape someone to leave the country of their birth; how does it shape someone to be left? And what does it mean that we’re here now – that somehow, against many odds, we came from the ones who survived?
Another part of growing up, it seems to me, is that we become more comfortable saying I don’t know.