Sunday, August 7, 2011

To Have a Heritage

While I'm continuing my research travels, having finished my time at the library in Lafayette, Indiana, I'd like to share a piece I wrote last year on the occasion of my mother's birthday. The photo to the left is from her professional portfolio from her young years, when her hopes were to be an actress, and when, still awaiting that moment when her dreams would become reality, she filled those starving-artist seasons with work as professional dancer, United Nations tour guide--or whatever would fill the pantry of the New York City apartment she shared with her fellow hopeful starlets-in-waiting. I've often thought of my mother as an enigma, yet at the same time, she has prompted many thoughts and observations, making me realize that what she gave me, for better or for worse, became the gems that I inherited as part of my family heritage. Remembering that we all have a heritage and we, ourselves, leave a legacy, I've often been reminded to hold dear whatever I've been given.
When I think back over the three decades I’ve dabbled in researching my family tree, I can’t help but wince remembering the biblical injunction against devoting oneself to “endless genealogies.” The message seems to be that it is of no lasting purpose to know one’s roots. My hope—or at least something I often wonder—is that there is a benefit to knowing one’s heritage.

I guess I was just born wanting to know my family’s story, though I’m nowhere in the league of bluebloods, cognoscenti, or even the lowly glitterati. Historically, the only ones deemed worthy of recording forebears were those who were making history. Many of those pacesetters were accorded notice because of agreements: covenants establishing a bloodline (kings), a right of service (priests), or a right of inheritance (nobility, landholders—or, in the case of the ancient nation of Israel, descendants of a particular promise-holder). In my case, none of these applied, but I firmly held to a blind faith that I was, indeed, some type of heritage-holder. To know this, to uncover my heritage, I needed to dig for my roots.

Though the notable Apostle Paul was the one who penned those dreary words, “endless genealogies,” in a note to his protégé, Timothy, it doesn’t mean that all hope of learning from one’s roots is now anathema. The Bible itself is replete with examples of family lines. Genesis, I Chronicles, and Matthew provide ample eye-glazing family litanies.

The thought hit me one day that there must be something to this genealogy stuff—else why would there be so much emphasis on it in the Bible? Take, for instance, the Old Testament habit of identifying a person not only by his name, but by his father’s name. In other words, a person would be listed by his father’s name too, if “John Smith” didn’t do the trick. “Oh! That John Smith!” If “John Smith, son of Joe Smith” didn’t provide enough detail, then another generation would be added. Of course, this system usually only applied to people making history, such as kings or priests—people already handily equipped to know such minutiae.

I can just see the name-calling match between prophets: Zechariah lists his resume to the third generation. Not to be outdone, the lesser-recognized prophet Zephaniah whips out his C.V. to the fifth generation, just in case anyone confuses him for that other Zephaniah.

Or take princes. Ziza, in I Chronicles 4:37, has five generations of predecessors listed to make sure no one becomes mistaken about just who is boss. To his credit, though, he had taken some significant action to get to the top of his class.

But me? Little ol’ me? The one who spent an entire student career preening on the heady insistence of teachers that each of us would become something special, that the world lay at our feet, that success was just there for the grabbing? That “me” who, despite those marvelous promises of well-meaning educator-mentors, spent adulthood as a mole burrowed in the anonymity of eight-to-five life? Where was my heritage?

Today is my mother’s birthday. While she is no longer here to enjoy the celebration, she provides a date for me to reflect on that heritage. I still haven’t found it—not in its entirety—but page by dusty page, I am uncovering the mystery that was hers to pass on to her children. I find the anomalies of life she passed down from her own misty childhood remembrances confirmed through the cold, impersonal dates and data of life records: census forms, death certificates, shipping records, land deeds. I uncover attitudes and prejudices passed along—broadly, from generation to generation, or unwittingly, from mother to daughter.

There may have been a time when people solved the problem of “which John Smith” by answering with the litany of “John Smith, son of Joe, son of Ed, son of Kevin.”

“Oh, that John Smith,” people may have nodded, remembering John’s great-grandfather.

I can’t say that many people today even know the names of their own great-grandparents.

In my quest to get to know just my own mother, I can be grateful that I am getting to learn those names. And I am getting to know a little more about each of their lives. In knowing where I have come from, I am reconstructing from lost memories my family’s own heritage. While I am not a king, not a priest, not a victorious warrior, even I can have a heritage. And it is the heritage, discovered, that benefits its possessors with significance.

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