Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Home of the free, land of the brave, and graveyard of forgotten pasts

Genealogy once was the province of  retirees, Mormons, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Young people didn't care because, well, they are young people. Mormons cared because their salvation and that of their ancestors depended on it. The DAR just wanted to know whom to accept and whom to snub.

DNA tests have contributed to this change. People find out that they have 20 percent Sub-Saharan Africa in their genome even though they have red hair and freckles and get plastered every St. Patrick's Day. It's a revelation. They begin to ask who these ancestors were and head to to trace their lineage. Some lines are easy to trace. They left behind birth/death records, census entries, military service. Facts can be found. We fill in the chart and show it off to our families who care more about their NCAA tournament brackets than they do about Grandpa's service in World War One. The PBS show, "Who Do You Think You Are?, takes this a step further. Celebs want to trace their roots and supplies the trained genealogists, researchers and librarians who find out that their ancestors include the first king of England. Their story also comes with a slice of humble pie. I may be related to a king, but I also am the offspring of indentured servants, slave-holders and convicts. Therein lie the compelling stories, but you only have so much time in a one-hour show. We may discover our fourth great grandfather's name but it takes newspaper clippings and other docs to find at least a germ of their life's stories.

The searchers are left with their imaginations.

This is the province of  fiction writers.We can take an obscure fact and twist it into a 300-page novel., We find one of those boxes on the web site, fill in our knowledge with a few facts, and then let 'er rip. On the show, celebs confronted with the fact of an ancestor''s checkered past wants to know who what when where why and how. The trail of historical documents dries up and they are left with their imagination which often is lacking.

The most commonly asked questions on this show is: "How come I didn't know any of this?" In America, we forget our pasts. America is the land of the free and the home of the brave and the graveyard of forgotten pasts. Our ancestors were interesting but not interesting enough to be remembered.

I am writing a novel about my grandparents' era, post-World War I Colorado. Two war veterans, one Irish immigrant, and one budding suffragist from rural Ohio. These four people have been gone for decades. I grew up with them but my children never knew them and are not particularly interested in their stories. Their grandchildren will never know me and not care about my stories. I find this exceptionally sad. "Who Do You Think You Are" often closes with a visit to an ancestor's grace. The burial sites are sometimes in fine shape. Often they are neglected,weedy and overgrown, or just impossible to find. It's easy to spit out a cliche: their burial sites may be neglected, but their stories will live forever.

No they won't. Mine won't. Yours won't. People will forget. We forget quicker in the USA than anywhere else on the planet. The inexorable onrush of capitalist culture depends on it. To change that attitude only leads to grief.

Or to fiction. I am writing about my grandparents' era. They were young. They moved across the country into what they thought were promising futures. My goal is to capture that time. It didn't turn out as hoped. I know some of those stories too. But to be young and a pioneer. Such a delicious time, and fraught with peril.

It's their story but not their story. More a feeling of what it felt like to be them in a certain time and place.

All told from the POV of a this soon-to-be-forgotten entity.

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