Family History: When the Past Remains a Secret

by Allison Palmer

Artist: Kadir Nelson

With the rise of DNA testing technology, we find a host of new issues about genealogy beginning to emerge. Among them are problems regarding actual proof of lineage, how genetic information is gathered and analyzed, and the reliability of testing companies, in particular, the ones most famous for generating pie charts and standard breakdowns. For a price, such agencies often confirm what customers already knew (or suspected) from the outset. Beyond the numbers, however, a certain level of intrigue can endure, questions about the details of family history—deeply human, unquantifiable issues—eluding scientific explanation. Specifically, the difficulty of understanding exactly what motivated your ancestors, and what their reasoning was based upon, can persist, despite advances in genetic analysis. And this is where things become quite interesting.

A few years ago, I interviewed an archivist about her development of oral history projects for our community. We began by discussing the subject of genealogical research, and how difficult it becomes when, invariably, one discovers changes in family names, or loses track of ancestor migrations in a sea of government paperwork. Moreover, the work of tracing a single forbearer—through the chaos of war and demographic shifts, epidemics, and changes in marital status—often remains an overwhelming task, even for a skilled researcher. Beyond this, we also have the issue of human reasoning to consider, a phenomenon which tends to defy scientific analysis. All of these variables make it difficult to develop a clear picture of the past; rather than creating a gritty, realistic portrait, we must sometimes render an abstract painting instead, a composition rich in color and texture, but sadly lacking any sharp lines of detail. Indeed, there is always much to consider when reconstructing the past, especially when bits of information emerge, for which no clear context can be found.

In addition to the branches of a family tree, we often have extraneous bits of foliage; quiet adoptions, children born to unmarried parents, conversions in faith, and mysterious causes of death, situations common to every group of ancestors. Unless a family maintains archives, from one generation to the next—and manages to collect candid letters and diaries—it is nearly impossible to sort through such things. In short, we have myriad ancestors who struggled with the task of being human, making choices for reasons known only to themselves, hiding inconvenient bits of information, and simply trying to make it through life. Unfortunately, they often leave descendants with far more questions than answers, regarding family history and its rich array of narratives. Apart from the broad brushstrokes of documented marriages and births, war records and employment histories, a detailed picture is often nearly impossible to compose. But the quest remains ongoing.

When the past reveals unexpected clues and offers up a few secrets to the intrepid researcher, there is always much more that remains hidden. Therein we find the joy and sorrow of genealogy; every answer reveals a new set of questions. However, even when the past retains its secrets, there are gifts it imparts to us, quite willingly; for example, the life of an ancestor can become an inspiration, as we gaze back across the distance of history. Even with an incomplete narrative, we can identify with those who came before us, as we piece together their stories and imagine ourselves in their place, awaiting the advance of an invading army, celebrating the birth of a child, or hoping to find a better life halfway.

Allison Palmer

Allison Palmer is an urban park ranger and essayist living and working in California. Her work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Wine Journal of the American Wine Society, The Bangalore Review, and Belle Ombre.





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