Thursday, November 25, 2021

Thanksgiving, Genealogy, and
the Search for Human Continuity


Today's Thanksgiving celebration in the United States is said to be a re-enactment, the four hundredth anniversary of the original occasion—although even that is being disputed. Of course, don't let squabbles about the accuracy of such a claim spoil your turkey dinner.

Those who have long followed A Family Tapestry know Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday, owing to the angst arising from my childhood loneliness during that celebration. My fixation on genealogy most likely has its roots in those lonely Thanksgiving mornings when I realized I was the only one my age left in the neighborhood; everyone else was traveling to spend the day with family. Where was mine?

With that in mind, and approaching this year's Thanksgiving holiday, I was slightly bemused to read an explanation for how genetic genealogist CeCe Moore eventually became involved in solving forensic cases. In Raffi Khatchdourian's in-depth article for The New Yorker, "How Your Family Tree Could Catch a Killer," the author theorized,

Virtually every genealogical quest...begins with a psychological mirage. What appears to be ego-driven—a desire to map relationships that affirm one’s centrality in the world—at some point reveals itself to be about others, people we can no longer see, hear, or perhaps even name.

Let's just say my quest to uncover my family's history sprang from quite the opposite of such a beginning. It came from a sense of recoiling from an existential nothingness—the fear that I was just out there, floating around in the empty space where a pedigree chart should have been. That's the sort of detachment I imagine adoptees experience, but here I was, a kid living with two parents and a sister—hardly a situation of isolation. Where was everyone else? I needed to find who else I might be a part of, not who else was out there, orbiting my centrality. It was always about the others, whoever they were—wherever they were.

The article's take: "All genealogy is a search for human continuity." Perhaps the hope that, since we've always been here, we'll be here in the future is a basic human yearning. But I'm not even sure I explore my roots, branches, and family connections for even that hope, compelling as it is.

Yes, perhaps imagining that pilgrims have been eating turkey dinners in November for four hundred years will quell any fears that we might not be here to enjoy the leftover turkey sandwiches from next year's feast, but to me, that doesn't seem a compelling argument. Maybe I'm just not as worried about human continuity as I should be. Rather than looking forward to next year's Thanksgiving dinner, or the next entry on our pedigree chart, perhaps the resolution of that quest, as The New Yorker article on CeCe Moore concluded, "reveals itself to be about others, people we can no longer see, hear, or perhaps even name."

Somehow, those others are still with us. And they, along with us, bring our collective influence into the future.

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