Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflecting on ancestry

I arrived back in the US over the weekend, dropping in through Vancouver and avoiding all of the storms blowing in across California.  My daughter and I immediately headed to Denver for a visit with my parents, a chance to catch up on, and to share,  events and rumors throughout the extended family.

When I was in my 20’s, I dropped through my grandparent’s home outside Cleveland each time I flew over on business, probably twice a year.  My grandfather was a lifelong railroader, working his way up from track worker to ‘assistant to the president (Personnel Training)’ of the Erie Lackawanna railroad.  I’ve always been glad that I’d made time to sit and talk with them: as time spent can never be taken away, I didn’t find myself wishing I’d done more once they were gone.  I’ve got lots of good memories.

2I put his name into the browser search engine on a whim while typing this, and the Internet popped up a news article from a company magazine, circa 1944.  He must have been in his 40’s at the time, much younger than I am now.  It’s so strange to see him young and hustling: he was distinguished and in-charge years later, as I first remember him.

Our social memory is clearly lengthening as more and more archival material moves online.  Its fascinating what random bits of personal history wash up as a result.  I can forsee social maps being automatically extended into the past, without the need to laborously reconstructing family trees  through public records. And future generations will benefit from the myriad tracks that we leave through the literature, blogs, and facebook postings, almost a daily record of our evolving thoughts and lives.

How will this affect family identity?  Today, family traditions are stories, handed down from grandmother to granddaughter.  We build our backstories through yellow photographs and personal narratives, tailored to matriarchal perspective. How will this change with direct access to the reality of published history?  Will we feel more or less connected to ancestors who speak for themselves? 

I think the blend of fact and legend will make our familial context more vivid, both inspiring and cautionary, than it is today.

And what of these essays?   I write for my own reflection and in dialog with today’s readers, but I’m aware that it also becomes part of the publicly accessible record.  Sometimes, I self-censure slightly for that.  No so, looking to my descendants: I’m happy to be leaving a trail for them to discover, if they are so inclined.

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