After painstakingly researching and compiling (with no computer literacy, I might add, just phone calls and reams of paper) eight generations of his family tree, my Mom’s husband hired me to type it all onto neat pages so that he can slip them into the plastic sleeves of his red duotang.
This is not my history and the names are unfamiliar, but I have found this exercise oddly enjoyable. For one thing, it’s a task I can do without a lot of thought, which gives me a little break from some of the over-thinking I do in many of my other tasks.
Though I don’t profess a lot of interest in genealogy, there is something comforting and rather grounding about these long branches of a family tree originating from one name a century and a half ago and then stretching out through the generations into the future.
As I type each name, I imagine it somehow mattering to each person that his or her name is there. Perhaps Anna feels a little twinge of happiness when her name appears on my computer screen, half a world away (most of the branches remain in their Dutch homeland). Perhaps Gerrit suddenly and inexplicably feels a sense of rootedness, and maybe even a longing to call a relative he hasn’t spoken to in a long time.
Perhaps I’ve been able to bless them somehow by attaching their names to this lineage through the ages.
As I read their names, I wonder about their stories. Did they like being part of this family tree? Did it matter to them? Or did they feel like misfits in a family where everyone else had a strong sense of belonging?
It’s the misfits I find myself most interested in. Not many layers of a person’s story show up on a family tree, but there are some that do. I wonder about those people who never had children and the branch ended with them. Did they want it that way or was it a matter of circumstances? How did they feel in a family surrounded by child-bearing relatives?
What about those who stayed single? Was that a happy choice or a lifelong trial? Did they find love in other kinds of relationships that didn’t conform to the family standards? Did they enjoy the solitude and freedom their singleness afforded?
And then I wonder about the secrets hidden behind the facts. Which people were living false lives, following the conventions of their culture? Which marriage was merely a cover for a repressed desire to love a person of the same gender? Which children were born out of a need to live up to expectations rather than a desire to be parents?
I wonder too about names. It’s striking how quickly a marriage wipes out a woman’s surname and changes that branch of the tree forever with a new name. When they marry outside the Dutch heritage, the family tree seems to imply that they cease to be Dutch. Does that matter? Is it something the new women’s movement should care about?
And then I find myself wondering about lineage in general. What kind of lineage matters? Do only the tendrils of our lives that connect us to our family history and culture matter? Or are there other lineages that we choose to be part of that make more difference – the lineages of our faith traditions, our vocations, our passions, our communities, our chosen families, and our spiritual practices? How much of life is a matter of our own choosing and how much is it a matter of simply accepting what comes?
I have no conclusions for this post, just a lot of meandering down the branches of a family tree that is not my own.