In my last post, I posed the question of the genealogist’s impulse, which was prompted by my memory of meeting a very distant cousin when my mother and I picked up a Moore genealogy packet from him during our 2007 trip to Economy. I was confounded by the thought of being connected to so many people through a common bloodline, but never knowing them, never even knowing of their existence. (The feeling was similar to thinking about death: the thought of ceasing to be and the thought of living forever are terrifying in equal measure.)
Could it be that the impulse to spend countless hours trawling census records, birth records, death records, marriage records, immigration records and every other conceivable record (cf. Cyndi’sList!) is a way of searching among the billions of tile pieces that make up humanity past and present to find the scattered pieces of our own bloodlines, carefully cleaning the accumulated dirt and grime from each piece and holding it up to the light to see its true color and if any of the original detail remains? Does the impulse then take us one step further to form these tiles into a mosaic of found pieces and missing pieces, knowing all the while that the picture will never be completed?
I subscribe to several genealogy/family history blogs, and the common impulse I’m seeing is a desire to honor the life of each person who makes up the fragmented mosaic that is family: Here is a woman who once lived in this world, and her life mattered. Here is a child who didn’t survive his infancy, and his life mattered, too. Here is a troubled man who took his secrets to the grave: we won’t forget him, but we’ll let him keep his secrets.
For me, writing about my family in personal essay and poetry has always been a way to feel closer to them. (The impetus for fiction is different. It starts with an attempt to understand a family member and ends with a fictional character who is someone else altogether.)
I believe that the act of writing keeps the spirit of another alive in the writer. Publishing the writing in a blog, with its immediacy and potential for interactivity, seems to be the next natural link in the chain as the act of reading keeps that same spirit alive in the reader.
If I’ve floated too far into the ether with this post, I promise I’ll come back down to earth next week.
2 thoughts on “The Genealogist’s Impulse?”
Very elegantly stated! For me at least there are also personal & altruistic motives. Not only is there a desire to feel connected with the bloodline, but there is also a certain degree of satisfaction at uncovering the hidden knowledge of the past. Blogging provides additional satisfaction by sharing that knowledge with friends and relatives who appreciate and gain insight through that shared knowledge.
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Thanks, Jon! I also have enjoyed the thrill of discovery–although not as quickly or as often as I would like. 😉