Monday, October 1, 2012

Beautiful Genealogies

When it comes right down to it, some people see genealogies as bare bones lists of names, dates, and connections demonstrating relationships in a family tree. Who those people were—other than the basic facts cited—becomes no clearer for having been listed within the charts or reports provided. Using the lingo of journalism, genealogy gives us the Who, Where, and When. It is truly, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

On the other hand, when people speak of family history, I see a different matter: an explanation of the What and the Why. While the newspaper reporter might focus on the facts alone, the family historian wants to move beyond cold data. The family historian wants to uncover the full chest of hidden treasure in ancestry’s story, not just settle for the pennies of a string of “factoids.”

In the genealogy blogging world, arising from the nearly three thousand of us, we see some writers intent on moving beyond merely reciting data. I’ve seen this type of movement in other disciplines throughout history, and I’m hoping this is a glimpse at a trend that will take hold and call others to join the effort.

In our modern times, when we think of the discipline of art—or, to put it more broadly, “The Arts”—we may, if we are honest with ourselves and not afraid to admit our “ignorance,” see creative efforts that may seem downright ugly, untoward, or distasteful. A trend toward beauty seems counter-intuitive to those currently immersed in these fields. And yet, music history, for one, has shown developments that have reached out toward beauty, toward an uplifted ideal.

Take the designation, in the world of opera, once known as Bel Canto: “Beautiful singing.” Whether you are an aficionado of the niche of Italian opera or not, you can appreciate the sentiment: a style of singing that upholds beauty as an ideal.

I grew up in a metropolitan area that once considered itself the center of the universe: New York City. I didn’t exactly live in any of the five boroughs, but I lived near enough to benefit from the magnificent arts and culture the region afforded. In addition, I lived in proximity to many other, lesser-known historic cultural resources, thanks to my residence on Long Island.

Many people may not be aware of just where—or what—Long Island is. For those map-challenged among us, Long Island is the fish-shaped appendage docked to the east of that better known, more celebrated port called Manhattan. People hearing the island’s name may think of a few things—mostly the Long Island Parking Lot (otherwise known as the Long Island Expressway), the Mets, Jones Beach, or even Teddy Roosevelt’s home—but not many will recall the rich historical heritage whose tokens are scattered throughout the island’s landscape.

Several years ago, I was pursuing a personal study of significant residences on Long Island dating from the 1800s. Mostly, I was focusing on the opposite end of the island—the Hamptons, in particular. Somewhere in my studies, I stumbled upon the fact that there was a name given to the style of residential architecture in vogue during the latter part of that century. Rather than taken from the Italian, as the “beautiful” designation for opera, the term for this architectural school of thought came from the French: Beaux Arts.

Beaux: beautiful. Once again, someone slipped away from the drudgery of the world into the ideal—a realm where there is no place for ugly.

I don’t know what your feelings might be about the historical context surrounding the times in which these beautiful residences were designed and built. Admittedly, there were some very ugly things happening during those times. But for those who could—through finances, ability, will power, or whatever—a cadre of leaders chose to focus not on the base or the distorted, but on the uplifting, both for the individual residences of the privileged, and for public displays of urban architecture, too.

There have been other times in history when things weren’t going so swell—and yet, someone chose to shift attention from the painful and the discouraging to the uplifting and beautiful. If you have ever studied the state of life in medieval Ireland, for instance, you know the times were fraught with risks, political collapse and chaos. Narratives like Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization—whether you agree with its premise or not—give a pretty good idea of the times. And yet, despite the many opportunities to focus on the bad, that time period, too, yielded a token of choosing instead to look toward the beautiful in its exquisitely illuminated Book of Kells.

Not that all tragedies of life should be designated as ugly and shunted out of sight. It is in the handling of the story that we either benefit from the good or get dragged down with the ugly.

Why mention all that in relation to genealogy? I say this because I see a movement taking shape: people who cherish their families’ stories so much that they are not content to simply build a genealogy—no matter how well documented. These people sense the need to tell something more about their families, to pass down a history of the relatives before them who made them who they are. To know these family members they’ve never met. And to pass that knowing along to others.

In the writing of it, they discover not only their ancestors, but they discover something more about themselves. As the story becomes more compelling to them, they become part of it, too. Intertwined.

Crafted with compassion, what they write becomes beautiful. The subjects might not be beautiful in and of themselves—an alcoholic in my family’s story, for instance, or an escaped prisoner in another’s story. But in the telling of the story—and here is where we become intertwined—in our perceptions of the gifts we’ve received from that heritage, our eyes are opened to the beauty of the chain reactions of life. How the choices one person may have meant for harm bestowed unexpected benefit upon another generation. How one generation’s weakness or mistakes strengthened the next generation. How one generation’s poverty or suffering resulted in another generation’s determination and resilience. How another’s journeys became our arrivals.

To tell the beautiful story means to speak with these ancestors’ words, to mouth the sentiments they might have felt. It means ferreting out the compelling in the life lessons of a previous generation so another generation won’t have to go without.

I love what I’m seeing as these people start unfolding their families’ stories, blog post by blog post and book by book. So many new publications show me that these researchers have found their voice—actually, their ancestors’ voices—and are stepping up to tell their stories.

I’m grateful for these stories. I don’t know what genre they would be classified under, but in the tradition of Bel Canto and Beaux Arts, I consider them Beautiful Genealogies.

Above left: Incipit "Liber Generationis" of the Gospel of Matthew, from the 700 A.D. illuminated manuscript, the Lindisfarne Gospels. Below right: the "Four Evangelists" from the Book of Kells, circa 800 A.D. Both courtesy Wikipedia; both in the public domain.


  1. As an annual visitor to Orient Point, Eastport, Wading River, and Port Jefferson, I can see the glimmering of "what it used to be like" there - before the masses "developed" (I often read that as "destroyed") the land. It invokes a quiet, peaceful, honest labor time...

    1. You are talking home turf to me when you mention some of those names, Iggy. Wading River was my all-time favorite little hideaway.

      Of course, now it is nothing like it was when I was a kid...I have a sister who lives there now, and I'm surprised to see how different the area looks. I used to love to ride my bicycle to the port at Port Jefferson (well, and Wading River, too) and even though I haven't been there lately, I know Port Jefferson has changed, too. Sad, but what can you do?

      The south shore of Long Island I wasn't as familiar with--that being the territory of some of those Beaux Arts mansions. Putting aside any thoughts of the people living in those palaces, or the milieu in which the funds were raised to build such places, in looking at their architecture--and the conceptual aspect of it--I mean here to focus on the pursuit of beauty in creating, whether art, music, portraiture, architecture. While also quiet and peaceful, though, it is indeed a very different world from that North Shore region you refer to.

  2. A wonderfully-written article, Jacqi. The poet in me always seeks out and cherishes the beauty in the world, as well as the beauty that I see in the lives of those whose stories I strive to tell on my various family history blogs.

    And I love Long Island! I made many happy visits to my grandparents' home in Massapequa and remember rowboating with my aunts and cousins in the canal behind their home, taking walks on Jones Beach with my grandfather, and making a special visit with a beloved aunt to Port Jeff one summer. I am long overdue for a visit.

    1. Lisa, thank you so much for your kind words. And when you mention Massapequa, it makes me want to get together with you for a visit and compare notes! That is one of my childhood homes--not very far from the canals you talk about. Even though I've left New York so many years ago--and am very happy where I am now--it brings back a wave of nostalgia just to think about it now!


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