History

My sister, Andrea, sold me on reading the personal history of my Great-grandma Brewer (my dad’s mom’s mom). To be honest, I’m a little shocked I even went to the trouble of downloading it. I have up until this time in my life exhibited absolutely no interest in family history or genealogy. There’s no surer way to lose my interest in a Church meeting than to talk about family history, with the possible exception of talking about modesty. Or talking about anything – even the most exciting, interesting thing in the world – one minute past the time the meeting or class is supposed to end. You can keep my body there after the allotted time, but not my mind.

But download it I did, and since I’ve had plenty of time on my hands lately, I started reading. I’m really so very glad I did. I finished it in a few days, and then started in on my Great-grandpa Bell’s history, which I found equally engrossing. But I’m hard-pressed to explain why. While they were both lovely, decent people who lead lives worthy of praise and honor, they were, like most of us, relatively unremarkable. They weren’t famous or glamorous, and with the exception of my Great-grandfather’s service in WWI, they weren’t involved in any particularly dramatic events. So why am I so interested in them and their lives?

Our interest in those members of our family with whom we interact often and closely is easy to explain. We love and feel connected to those people we spend time with, family or not. But I was young when my great-grandparents died, and I can’t really remember any of the time I spent with them. So why do I feel a sense of connection to them? Is it simply because they’re my forebears? Because I’m carrying around a little bit of their DNA? Because I exist as a result of their actions and choices? That’s probably some of it.

But I also think it’s because I’ve received and accepted the idea that families have identities – certain traits and characteristics – and that those identities are passed down from generation to generation. If pressed I’m not sure if I could explain how I believe this process occurs – is this identity passed through genetics? Through upbringing and culture? I don’t know.

But I confess that while reading these histories I took a certain pride in the accomplishments and positive attributes of my ancestors. But why? Given that I clearly wasn’t responsible for the things they did, the only option left is that I feel that some of positive characteristics they exhibited made their way down to me. Which may or may not be true.

True or false, reading these histories has rooted me in an unexpected way. Reading them left me with an inexact but nonetheless powerful sense of belonging and inheritance and legacy. Maybe all of those Bells and Brewers and Barkers and Chipmans who came before never considered me as they worked and prayed and fought to move up and forward, or maybe they did. I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters. The fact of the matter is I’m standing on their shoulders, and knowing that makes me feel that my life isn’t my own, that it’s a gift given me by an Ogden shopkeeper and an Idaho farm girl and Willard Bay Wonder Bread truck driver and a Dutch janitor and on and on. That gift, as I see it, isn’t just the fact of my existence, made possible by their decision to have children. It’s much more than that. It’s the gifts and providential circumstances of my existence; the beauty and goodness and love of my parents and their parents and their parents. My presence in this abundant country. The privileges and blessings of my upbringing. It’s all of it.

And the only proper response to a gift won that dearly by people as good and strong as they is to revere it and guard it and polish it and then give it to someone else.

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6 Responses to “History”

  1. Marm says:

    This is the best talk I’ve ever heard/read on family history. Really. And I’m glad to hear I am not the only one that didn’t have an ancestor that walked across the plains having only one leg and then killed a buffalo with his crutch. Those talks truly depress me.

  2. Eliza says:

    Dave, I too had this exact feeling afterwards. It just was truly inspiring and humbling, like made me panic a little that I have got to pull my act together and keep the momentum of goodness going. It totally makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself and because of that makes you feel responsible to not only uphold the family legacy but live so that the future generations will be inspired by you. Humbling and amazing.

  3. Miggy says:

    Davis–hey. So you might find this piece from the NYT an interesting read:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

    In a nutshell, the article basically states that the number 1 thing parents can do to raise well adjusted, happy kids is to develop a strong family narrative–basically, tell them stories of their families. Anyway, it’s very interesting and I can’t help but think how I was helped as a kid knowing my grandparents stories–like if they could do it, maybe I could do it too. Anyway, good thoughts. Carry on..

  4. Davis says:

    Amy, thanks so very much for that article. It perfectly captures what I’ve been experiencing, and it also cements in me a commitment to help my kids understand their history.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I’m with you on family history, Davis. But, a few years ago, I had to compile some family pictures and history for a little family reunion and I was amazed at how connected I felt to these people, most of whom I had never met. There’s something to it, for sure. I really liked that article you sent out too.

  6. jo says:

    Beautifiully expressed, Davis. And very inspiring. So glad you wrote!

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