Two reflections, my dear readers, prompted by reading the early chapters of Where I Was From, by the fearless Joan Didion (she of The Year of Magical Thinking). This post is on family history; the next one will be about California and federal money.
On family history
Didion’s memoir starts with a vivid recollection of her forebears, their countenance and character, and objects and mementos that belonged to them: “My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott was born in 1766″… “I have, besides her recipes, a piece of appliqué she made on the crossing” … “I also have a photograph of the stone marker placed on the site of the cabin in which Nancy Hardin Cornwall and her family spent the winter of 1846-47″… “the old potato masher which the Cornwall family brought across the plains in 1846”… “a quilt made by my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Anthony Reese”… “fifty shares of Transamerica stock”.
I wonder why so many Americans (outside the Mormons, for whom it is a religious calling) are so fond of digging way back into their family history. Sure, many have an ancestor who hurried to cross the Sierra Nevada before the winter snow, or one who came to Ellis Island with a cardboard suitcase, or one who had this or that story to tell to epitomize the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and such heroic feats of will. So, perhaps, their great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers are by definition more interesting than ours. I don’t even know the names of anybody who came before my grandparents. I own a single surviving recipe book in my maternal grandmother’s handwriting, and two of her finely embroidered tablecloths; from those generations and generations of earlier forebears I have no letters or diaries, no surviving artifacts, no stock certificates, and certainly no potato mashers. (The oldest family lore I can recall is an unverified rumor about my paternal grandmother hugging and kissing a black American soldier, on or about April 25, 1945.) We regular Europeans do not reconstruct our family trees as a hobby, we do not practice ancestor worship: unless we’re in the tiny minority who has inherited a castle in the Loire valley, say, and can stare at those people’s dusty portraits in our darkened halls, and sell their furniture.
Realistically, most of our forebears must have led unremarkable lives. I guess it would be possible to reconstruct these lives’ outlines through church archives: they were born and baptized, they married, they bore children who were in turn baptized, they died and were buried. For centuries and centuries, the monotony of agrarian life wore them down. They grew crops and brought them to market. Once in a while, they sold a pig or a calf. You see, unlike Joan Didion’s ancestors, my folks, I’m afraid, never went anywhere. It just wasn’t that common to up and go somewhere. Did one of my ancestors join the Crusades and see the Holy Land? Did one see China in the footsteps of Marco Polo? Did one travel North and learn to paint in the style of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach? It just seems so unlikely. Historians, contradict me if I’m wrong, but I think that statistically, even through wars and famines and epidemics, most people stayed put. That was what life was like. And that’s why genealogy would bore most of us to tears. On average, our ancestors must have been unremarkable, or at least less enterprising than those who got on some boat and whose children went on to build America. The mobility gene packed up and left; we are the children of those who lacked it.
Perhaps, by taking for granted that there is nothing special to learn about our forebears, we do miss out on patterns, on clues to who we might be underneath our veneer of cultural sophistication. Joan Didion, reconstructing character from the flimsiest of clues, finds a dark thread running through her family:
They were women, these women in my family, without much time for second thoughts, without much inclination toward equivocation, and later, when there was time or inclination, there developed a tendency, which I came to see as endemic, toward slight and major derangements, apparently eccentric pronouncements, opaque bewilderment and moves to places not quite on schedule.
But then, were that to be the case for me too, wouldn’t I be better off not knowing?