Wednesday, August 30, 2023

When our Family's Heritage Speaks to Us


Yesterday, my daughter and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen preparing a big batch of pesto to freeze for wintertime dinners. There was no recipe; just the oft-repeated combining of fresh ingredients which my daughter blended from that culinary sixth sense which seems to need no road map. It was a lot of work, of course, but an enjoyable opportunity to get together and talk—not to mention sopping up the last few drops with a morsel of fresh bread, a slice of mozzarella topped with tomato and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. As much as we relish a treat like this, you'd think we were re-enacting a centuries-old family tradition, but we weren't. We just appreciate delicious food.

Earlier in the day, I had gone to the library along with a few other volunteers from our genealogical society to help library patrons with their family history questions. We never know what to expect, but do our best to provide guidance and resources, based on our own prior research experience. It doesn't hurt that some of our volunteers are former real estate appraisers, or are well versed in researching Native American roots or using DNA for genealogy.

As it often turns out, this was one of those days in which that expertise came in handy. An African-American library patron came to us with a research brick wall, but not what you'd expect; she was attempting to find her ancestor in records of the Cherokee nation. Our volunteer did her best to equip this library patron with additional resources and some next steps to take before checking in with us again next week.

When I reflected on the day's experiences later that evening, I realized one thing: you can't always tell which aspects of a person's life will reveal the truth of their roots. You may think—especially since I sport a name like Taliaferro in my ancestral heritage—that my daughter's pesto recipe came to us, handed down through generations of Italian ancestors. But you'd be quite wrong in such an assessment. I have no such connection in my family tree, nor does my husband in his. It just so happens that we live near a farmer—he's the Italian—who grows wonderfully aromatic basil, which he will pick fresh for us when we need to do up a batch of our recipe. It's a matter of resources at hand in the local market and an epicurean bent to our nature.

Likewise, our friend who stopped in to see us at the library that morning might have had a more expected research question. At least, we had expected something far different. But in this researcher's case, she had something my basil-grinding daughter and I didn't have: a family tradition. Her family had paperwork which had been passed down from her grandmother, years ago. She just wanted to find a way to connect all the records available to complete the family story.

Granted, there are family history stories which may have been, to us, previously unknown—until we stumbled upon an unexpected discovery. Such is the case for the generations of descendants reaching back to that previously-unknown brother of my father-in-law's grandfather Tully. But for the most part, families which shared those stories over generations tend to know the general direction their research will lead them. In those cases, our task is more of one seeking to close the circuit, to come full circle through documentation as well as oral tradition, so that the story we pass down to the next generation is one we can confirm through a full array of resources.


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