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by Doris O'Brien

Americans' fascination for genealogy is growing as fast as our fannies.  In this technological age, we have far more sophisticated tools than the shovel and pick with which to dig deep for our undiscovered roots.

As someone who is less interested in where people came from than in where they are going, I confess that genealogy is not my bag of bones.  Yet there are increasing numbers whose curiosity is aroused sufficiently to search out their origins.  Some genealogical sleuths even appear to be more interested in ancestors than they are in living relatives.  In some cases, forebears are accorded more attention in death than they ever merited in life.

If technology now enables us to delve into the past, the paucity of it in previous generations can stonewall genealogists, leading them to a dead end.  On the other hand, information gaps give license to travel broad, imaginative highways of speculation.  Skeptics may question what part of one's charted lineage is fact and what is good-intentioned supposition.  Our family trees are winter trees:  more limbs than leaves.  It is only human nature to fill them out as best we can.

Shakespeare wrote, "The evil that men do lives after them.  The good is oft interred with their bones."  But genealogists, no matter how rigorous the standards of their pursuit, seem willing enough to give ancestors the benefit of the doubt.  Thus, family cads become charismatic figures; ordinary people eking out a living are viewed as unsung heroes who braved adversity; a suffocating shop transport in steerage class morphs into a grand ocean voyage of discovery to the New World.  It is within us to presume the best of our forebears.  We do as much for our own sakes as for theirs.

Technology is not the only element driving the present-day frenzy in the field of genealogy  We live in ever more impersonal times.  As population swells, the individual shrinks.  Homogenization settles us into sameness.  With our identities becoming harder to assert and easier to steal, many of us feel increasingly lost in the crowd.  Extended families scatter, and the hometown — our immediate roots — turns into a place to visit  on the holidays.

Under these diminishing circumstances, it is not surprising that many  Americans have nourished a new-found interest in their roots.  It  puts us in touch with earlier times, when priorities were ordered differently. When we glimpse the sepia photos of our ancestors from a few generations back, in their formal attire, fussy dresses, conspicuous hats and elaborate hairstyles, we can relate — even become  a "relative to" — something that we know is gone from our own lifestyles forever.

We may shudder at the bustles, girdles and crinolines that burdened our female forebears.  Or snicker at the starched collars, bowler hats and Sunday suits of the men who self-consciously gazed into the camera's eye.  But who among us in this casual age has not secretly thought how splendid such touches of elegance, however occasional, must have been.

Even those of us not "into"  genealogy can savor the fruits of others'  efforts.  Recently, a distant cousin e-mailed me some turn-of- the-20th-century photos discovered among the few items in the estate of her mother, who died last year at the age of 101.  The cache, still intact, was all the more extraordinary for having survived the wrath of Hurricane Andrew, which totally destroyed her house in Homestead, Florida, while she was traveling in Europe.

I had never seen a picture of my deceased father taken before he was a Doughboy in World War I.  Yet there he was on my computer screen, re-discovered in a salvaged album, a lad of four years old or so, dressed to the nines in coat, boots, and knickers, with a frilly ascot at this throat, and a small riding crop in his hands.  He was probably miserable in that Little Lord Fauntleroy get-up, but I'd have known him anywhere!

So far, someone on my husband's side of the family has traced his maternal line back to its arrival in the New World in the mid-17th century.  The claim could be questionable.  Still, even a skeptic like myself finds it easy enough to get entwined in the roots of her past.  After all, they're family.

Doris O'Brien is a retired college Speech teacher and banker.  She has published two books of humor (Up or Down With Women's Liberation and Humor Me a Little) and for many years contributed light verse to the Pepper 'n Salt column of the Wall Street Journal.  She is a voracious writer of letters to the editors.  

Doris celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in the same year she welcomed her first grandchild.  She can be reached by e-mail: witsendob at (@)




©2007 Doris O'Brien for SeniorWomenWeb
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