Every family has one: the person who signs on to Ancestry.com, puts together a graph of the family lineage and gets excited about a rare photo of great-uncle Martin. In my family, that’s me, because no one else seems to care as much as I do about our ancestors.
In the previous generation, on my father’s side, my aunt was the one who kept all the family stories and scrapbooks of black-and-white photos. She was a wonderful storyteller, happy to pass on all the family tales to anyone interested. Whenever I visited her—she lived halfway across the country—or talked to her on the phone, I would hear stories of how my German grandfather came to this country at the age of 16, leaving his family behind, how he started a tool-and-die company in Chicago, and how he met my grandmother.
Aunt Ann, who was my father’s younger sister, bestowed on me many of the old photos—of my grandparents when they were young, of the family posing in the backyard of their Chicago home, of great aunts and uncles whose names I no longer remember or never knew. Even though I love these old pictures, it sometimes seems a big responsibility: If I don’t digitize the photos, make sure everyone is properly identified and pass on the stories and photos to another generation, they could be lost.
Unfortunately, my aunt died last January, and I get a sinking feeling when I realize there is no one to ask questions of anymore, because she was the last of that generation. Any questions I have, such as what kind of life my grandfather and his family lived in the old country, will go forever unanswered.
I have even less information on my mother’s side, because she was an only child and lost her memory in the last few years of her life—just when I had the time and curiosity to want to know more about her parents and their families. Her mother had six older siblings who died young (probably from scarlet fever or some other childhood disease). My grandmother withstood not only the disease but one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history and lived to be 96. I long to know how my grandmother survived the tragic sinking of the Eastland in the Chicago harbor, which took more than 800 lives. But I’ll never know because her story is long buried with her and now with my mom, who died a year ago.
Only a few people in my large, extended family are interested in these questions. I don’t think it was always like this. From my limited knowledge of cultural history, in times past it was vital to know who and where you came from, and each generation passed down stories of the previous generations. Your heritage rooted you in the world, reminded you of what you were made of. But today our families and culture have become fragmented; we drift on whatever winds carry us, no longer tied to a family place or history.
For me, knowing that my grandfather left his whole family to come to America, never again to see his parents or four brothers who died in World War I, says a lot. I believe that I, along with my siblings and cousins, carry part of the gene that made him so courageous—and successful in the new country. Knowing where he came from connects me to another corner of the world and gives me part of my identity. Just like my siblings and I inherited some of my grandmother’s endurance, strength and stubbornness that helped her survive the ship’s sinking.
A well-known Buddhist teacher says we are composed of everyone who came before us and of everyone we’ve known. So the more I know about my ancestors, the more I know about myself.