Beyond the begats: Recognizing roots that make us who we are
By Mary Croke

I was in western Ireland a couple of years ago, sniffing around for signs of my Irish ancestors.

What I discovered were truths about the nature of roots - some surprising truths.

I found myself studying landscapes and the quality of light (so-and-so must've seen this!) and listening to spoken Gaelic (so-and-so would've spoken like this). When I met people whose looks or personalities resembled those of people in my family, I'd think, "Bingo!"

I even caught myself wondering if, in some indescribable, visceral way, certain places would seem familiar, as if carried in cellular memory. (The short answer, by the way: No, it felt like a foreign country.)

Everywhere around, it seemed, were American tourists of Irish descent. There  we were with our maps and cameras, visiting churches and museums and cemeteries, driving cautiously down high-walled lanes and exploring in old, old neighborhoods.

Hidden in this green, rocky place, somewhere, were family roots - a part of our identity, an answer to the question of what we are.

I think there's much value in rooting around in the family tree back as far as you can. It gives you a real mouthful of history, if you think about what different ancestors' daily lives must have been like. If you know someone was a serf, say, with the concomitant life that was probably "nasty, brutish and short," it changes your perspective a little. That that someone is a member of your own family makes it more real somehow, makes you more empathetic. Only it's too bad those folks are dead, not able to talk.

Of course, go back far enough (sometimes one generation will suffice) and you'll discover that you're descended from people who were only too happy to knock each other's blocks off. Maybe it was nations at war, or maybe it was the snooty old-timers versus the unwashed newcomers. Peacefully coursing through your veins at this very moment is the mingled blood of people who just couldn't stand each other.

Genealogy's gotten to be a favorite topic among my siblings. (Maybe middle age is the culprit.) We pore over newspaper clippings and cryptic notes and photographs and letters; we photocopy and mail. "What about that woman who died of a 'toothache' the day after her wedding?" we'll say.

There's never enough information. Who were these people? Are we like them? Would we like them? Wouldn't it be great to sit and talk with them, tell them about cars and computers and about what Grandma did when she grew up?

But something funny has happened on the way to genealogical awareness. The biggest pleasure in roots-tracing is being part of a special club. We have things in common that we don't have in common with anybody else: family members, big events, childhoods and jokes that go way, way back. There's a sense that "these are mine." Even within the extended family, there is noting and taking pleasure in similarities in talents, professions and even medical conditions.

So I'm starting to think, if you really want to figure out what your deepest connections are, you gain more by going horizontally than vertically. You can visit Ireland, or wherever, and it'll be fascinating, but you can't quite, as they say, get there from here. Ireland (or wherever) is only a piece of the puzzle. It might tell you what you identify yourself as, or what inspires you, but it doesn't necessarily tell you how you got to be you.

Those roots lie within a couple of generations of us, and they comprise more than the people to whom we're related. If you stop to think about it, you can identify specific things that helped shape you. There's genetic inheritance, of course, and also such things as education, religious training, traumas, skills learned on the playground, values learned at mama's knee.

And there's a lot of information around about the people who shaped us. Even stories that aren't true tell you things about the teller. There is a lot of information between the lines, and it is available to you if you know how to read it.

These are the roots from which we've developed. It's not just that we are the latest link in an incomprehensibly long chain of "begats." Whether we are aware of these roots or not, and whether they're good for us or not - we got 'em. It's helpful to know how to recognize them and their power, and to know how to live with them.