Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Genes

Inexplicably, I’ve begun a whirlwind genealogy project (sort of a bi-product of writing Culture Warrior, I suppose).

The reality of it is this: I’m suffering from a long sustained case of writer’s block. Digging up obscure ancestors has given my mind something to do while elsewhere, I have nothing to research nor anything salient to say.

Unfortunately, this genealogy project has hit a dead end (or at least an end until I can invest more time and perhaps a little dough into it). For the most part, this process has been logistically difficult. My ancestors were largely poor and as a result, I have to accept the inherent record-keeping limitations of their communities. If it weren’t for the Catholic parishes of 19th Century Ireland (and the Mormons of today), this process would be largely impossible.

I’m also looking for people with names like “James Murphy” or “Patrick Connolly”. It’s like trying to find a John Smith in Virginia, or someone in Brooklyn named “Anthony”.

But the biggest obstacle is one I can do little about. My grandparents’ generation was the first American-born folk in the tree. For the most part, their parents had fled some bad circumstances which went undiscussed once they relocated here. Amid this silence, basic details of their lives – the who’s the what’s the where’s – are lost. These people also committed themselves to assimilating into mainstream American culture as deftly as they could. It’s understandable that they sought to separate themselves from the identity of their homelands.

For the cousins and whatnot of my generation, we’ve struggled a bit with this. The baby-boomer tranche in our family did little in their formative years to tighten up the details of our family’s pre-American history (though, they’ve made up for it in retirement). My parents and their siblings grew up in either Brooklyn or Queens. Their generation saw great success socially and economically – meaning they moved up and out and never looked back. Unfortunately, in their younger years, the details that would have made for a robust family tree slipped away as the older generations died off while they themselves were busy with child-rearing and professional success. Just as they’d shed the boroughs of New York City for a pronounced improvement in their lifestyles, it seems an arm’s-length separation with the past of their grandparents became an unintended by-product.

I’m not sure where this leaves me or why I’m even doing all this. I suppose I would want my great-great grandchild to know who I was, that I had a name, that I lived somewhere. There are glaring black holes in the family tree where it seems not even the slightest tidbits can be found. It’s frustrating. If records are elusive, that’s one thing. But gaps in information existing because people simply wouldn’t talk – that feels just plain thick-headed.

My children will enjoy an incredibly rich trove of family history from my wife’s side. There, ancestors have been traced back centuries, some as far back as the original Mayflower settlers. Comparatively speaking, I’m just trying to play catch-up.

At a minimum I owe it to these ancestors who have been seemingly vanquished by time and the anonymity of their lives. Somehow, I feel if I can confirm their existence and know the names of the towns they’d emigrated from, know the dates they got married – I somehow bring them some validation amid the poverty of their lives. Maybe I just want to show them that someone, amid the furious materialism of our times, cared to look back.

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