Reflect on the past, live in the present


Genealogy is a hobby I could easily get lost in.

When I discovered a leading genealogical website years ago, I stayed up until 2 in the morning tracing a lineage on my maternal grandmother’s side back to Scotland, and from there to a sister of Robert the Bruce. Jackpot! The urge to dig further, despite the hour, resembled an addiction.

On second thought, it was an addiction. Fearful of being unhealthily absorbed, I pulled myself away and placed strict boundaries on my use of the site.

What do we seek in genealogy? A sense of identity through knowing where we came from, or a desire to discover we’re really someone “important,” based on a famous ancestor? In either case, our roots can only tell us so much — and can even be misleading.

When I hit upon that Scottish connection, I must admit I felt the stroke of ego. But on what basis? Did the discovery suddenly bestow on me some virtue I didn’t previously have? Could I claim some significant, new accomplishment?

And why should that lineage be any more important than the generations of Lower Saxon farmers on my father’s side? Princes and paupers are both born naked, and return to dust when their breath departs. Could the thrill of famous or noble heritage be more than mere vanity?

When it came to a sense of identity, another fantasy also had to be wrestled with. As I traced the German and Scottish towns where my ancestors came from, daydreaming of a heritage tour, it occurred to me that my immediate ancestors have lived in America for so many generations that this land has been far more impactful on who I am.

So why not start here? Nebraska and Oklahoma may lack Old World charms, but they shaped my parents and grandparents far more.

A final blow to my genealogical obsession came from a sense of irony at having so many living relatives with whom I have no relations. How could I look to ancestors for a sense of belonging while having more than 40 cousins, none of whom I know?

It may be easier to relate to the dead than the living, but there’s probably some escapism there. So this month, I’m taking my family to visit their roots. We’ll spend a week in the small, Nebraska hamlet where I was born. We’ll visit my father and half-sisters, who at my request have arranged a family reunion.

We’ll meet living relatives, pray for departed ones in rural cemeteries, and see the sights and sounds of what some would deem the middle of nowhere. And when finished, we’ll head to Pueblo so my children can see where they were born, pray in the church they were baptized and visit old friends they barely remember.

Marie Rodier1/15/2017 9:58 am
Please give a message to Fr. Barnabas Powell: regarding genealogy, there is an inspiring use for it in connecting in lineage with dozens of Pre-Schism Orthodox saints. I have at least 21 great-great grandfathers (and at least as many great uncles and aunts) who are saints. Since your name is Powell, there is a good possibility that you could have the same saints as ancestors. I have Powell in my family tree. Let me know if you would like more information. Marie Rodier
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