Recovering history

Some folks care about their family history, most don’t. There isn’t anything objectively wrong with not caring about it, although I don’t understand people who fall into this category. The questions we have about ourselves (even if we don’t vocalize them) are: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the purpose of life? Your family history can begin to answer at least the first question. You don’t know who you really are without knowing who those who came before you are. You can live and die in this ignorance, but you will live in an un-illuminated fashion, not realizing that many of the components that make up who you are have been inherited from those in previous generations.

As I research my family history I am struck by how much is lost that cannot be recovered. Even if I learn facts about my past that I did not know, they usually don’t have much force compared to if they had been handed down within the family. For example, my paternal great-grandfather was the son of Irish immigrants and fought in the Civil War in a cavalry unit. He got my great-grandmother pregnant outside of wedlock and left her at some point to spend his life in a home for veterans.

Now, imagine that instead of this scenario, he had stayed with her. The possibility is that my Grandpa and my Dad would have grown up Irish Catholic (a logical guess due to the Irish nationality) instead of German/Norwegian Lutheran. Culturally, this might have changed everything, and yes, in this counterfactual world I might never have come to be. Also, imagine that stories of his time in the Civil War had been passed down through the family–our heritage would have been one of telling war stories about Great Grandpa saying Hail Mary’s out in battle with the Confederates. Instead, this branch of the family was totally cut off and lost to time. I can reconstruct the bare facts of his life, but beyond that I can only infer and speculate.

When you die, your stories die with you. Everything you knew, thought, believed, and hoped is gone to those who remain in mortality and to future generations. That is unless you or someone near you writes it down. So write it down! Even the little things matter to those who come later and are curious about who you were and what you thought.

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