Evidence

Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.

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18 Replies to “Evidence”

  1. I love the imaginary conversation with the sports guy. If we could cut through to the essence and really connect with each other about what makes us tick, we’d all be in a constant state of marvel. On another note, for some of my ancestors, I was able to see their resemblance to my sons more than I had ever noticed it to myself.

  2. It’s strange but I’ve never considered before why it is that sportsfan is actually droning on about sports – perhaps next time I will ask her/him your insightful question. That would never have occurred to me and you are so right! I would of course be riveted by stories of your family history (which you already know and if only I could hang out at a party with you and other likeminded individuals – no wonder my son says I’m a nerd!) and, as always, was fascinated to hear about you uncovering tangible bits of your background. I can definitely see the resemblance in your father and grandmother and it’s all the more fascinating to think that there was a sizeable gap that you’ve now filled.

      1. True…the trick is to find enough people who do like to talk about it. In the end, it’s a story – it’s easy to love stories. But then, I already like family histories.

  3. I find your genealogy pieces have been incredibly interesting. I’d totally talk about them with you in detail around finger foods and drinks. I love all the notes you hit here, but most of all, I’m interested in how you managed to get all of these things. I, thankfully, know my parents, but my father was adopted in the first six months of his life. I know his adopted family history, but none of his birth family. I also never thought about how handwriting might be something that is passed on in generations. Mine mirrors my father’s, but only because I strove to write like him so I could fake his signature on school documents. heh

  4. That photo of you looks EXACTLY like one of the neighbor boys who lives on my street. So surprising! I totally relate to this post. My family members love family history for about 5 minutes. So I have to really think about how I want to use those 5 minutes when we are at a family gathering. For the most part my social circle consists of tiny people, teenagers, other mothers, and other genealogists so at least one of those allows me plenty of genealogy speak. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all approach a conversation like you outlined – with the end goal being to find how our differing interests actually connect and overlap? I think we are all trying to feed very similar needs, we just find different ways to do it.

  5. I am in agreement with Kelly.
    On a side note, my Mum does a lot of genealogy, but it is not something that interests me terribly (I am short minded and try to live in the present). It was interesting to read your thoughts on what it brings alive for you.

  6. oh man. i can totally relate to this post!! i remember one time i went to a friend’s christmas party and i really didn’t know anyone there except the host. when i met this friend, at the time i was so passionate about raising awareness for landmine clearance. years later he told me he thought i had no interest in anything else except landmines and social justice and that i wouldn’t want to be his friend! i realized then i really have to work on small talk. (but i hate small talk!)

    so this post totally nails it. your family stories are so fascinating. if your father didn’t know his parents, how did you get a photo of your grandmother? the word you invest in researching your history, it’s so admirable. thank you for sharing it with us.. it’s really inspiring.

  7. Wow. Forget for the moment that the conversational style of your writing hits all the marks and just draws me in….the real takeaway for me here is a totally new perspective on a longstanding, and somewhat troubling problem I’ve always had…being interested in conversation with strangers (and sometimes even with those I know well!). It’s the “why” that’s missing!! So thank you…now when I find myself not connecting and wishing to extricate myself from a seemingly meaningless conversation…I’m going to ask the question…I’m going to ask the why…I’m going to seek to understand what it is about this information that interests them…and in that answer I hope to find a few connections I might otherwise have never noticed. Brilliant!

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