Genealogy is an elective

In a recent Zoom chat with a group of my former coworkers, a woman of Filipino descent lamented the difficulty of finding records of her ancestors. I thought back to another chat with coworkers, this one in person, when I gushed about having traced a branch back 13 generations to 1629 New England.

Later I chastised myself for insensitivity with a group that included two African Americans. Because of the US’s sordid history of slavery, African American family histories are hard to trace and, as biologist Nathan H. Lents wrote in Psychology Today, “hard to romanticize.” There weren’t any adoptees in the group, but if there were and the adoptions were closed, they wouldn’t be able to go back even one generation. 

Maybe such conversations don’t leave people feeling excluded today, when anyone can learn their percentage of this and that ethnicity by paying for a DNA test. A DNA test, however, isn’t the same as a lineage sheet with names, dates, and places. 

It would be hypocritical to deny that genealogy has given me countless hours of pleasure. I’m not ashamed of pursuing an interest that not everyone can enjoy, any more than I resent people who can play an instrument or run marathons. But if I could run marathons, I might not rhapsodize about them with someone in a wheelchair.

Genealogy is most accessible to those of us who are white and go back a long way in this country. Even ancestors as humble as mine can be found in census, church, and vital records in the United States. (Just to be clear: There is no illustrious person on my family tree. My genealogy chatter was not about who my ancestors were but about how far back I could identify them.) 

I have another side of my ancestry — half of it, in fact — that is not easy to research. My mother is the daughter of immigrants from Slovakia, which had been under Austro-Hungarian rule for a millennium when they left. If records of the subjugated Slovaks were kept, I haven’t been able to find them. Because of the difficulty of going back more than three generations, I decided to do social research about the regions from which my Slovak grandparents came. I figured that knowledge of the history, culture, traditions, and religion of each region would be more meaningful than names and dates anyhow. A lineage chart doesn’t explain much about what shaped you. 

My feelings have changed from the days when I wrote, “Without every one of these people, I wouldn’t be here.” Now I’m more inclined to think of distant ancestors as an egg or a sperm. Those we grow up with are the ones who instill cultural heritage. Puritan ancestors a dozen generations back had nothing to do with who I am. I don’t retain any traditions of my Luxembourger great-grandparents or German great-grandmother. Coming from working-class, Catholic parents was pivotal, but it didn’t require genealogical research to tell me that. 

Why then research family history? It’s fun, like being a detective who is trying to piece together clues. But from more than four decades of doing genealogy off and on, my opinion of it has evolved from thinking it’s revelatory to thinking it’s a good hobby for a person who enjoys research. I try to resist acting like being able to name a great-great-great-great-grandmother is praiseworthy. Discussions of the pastime are best saved for those who share it or ask about it.

If it would be impossible or improbable for you to be able to trace your lineage, try to think of genealogy as an elective rather than a requirement. You are not lacking ancestors; you have as many, more or less, as everyone else. Some of us just have an easier time naming them. 

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