In these intense days of the early 21st century, humanity, it seems to me, appears to be writing its last chapter in double time. It seems that everything is escalating and intensifying almost daily.
Sometimes I worry that we are the graduating class and I feel some kind of urge to understand it all - my story - my family's story - our story as humans. Perhaps I worry too much. After all, the sky has fallen many, many times over the epochs.
Everybody knows that the 1976 publication of Alex Haley's Roots brought new attention to what used to be the hobby of Bored Older Relatives - genealogy - and made it an object, at long last, of fascination and discovery.
But over time, the pursuit of genealogy, with its very real limitations of micro-fiche and the onerous sending away for records, faded back into the mothership, which is to say the Church of Latter Day Saints, which has busily been keeping track of everybody for some decades now so that we can all get our own planet or something. No disrespect, by the way - who doesn't want their own planet?!
I have long been the history librarian in my family - or, rather, the one who got parked with the dusty trunks full of illegible journals, tarnished silver, smashed hats and the odd shoe. I have also been the keeper of the family history rumours: Granny Rebecca was a Cherokee Indian! (Nope.) We are related to Oliver Cromwell! (Nope.) We are Irish! (Not really.) We are related to Lady Jane Grey! (Oddly - yes.)
Genealogy websites are now the second most visited websites in the US. The first most popular being pornography sites. Let us not dwell on that strange fact.
Recently, perhaps emboldened by the fact that I could find answers at the click of a button and the dull, annoyed knowledge that the dusty trunks are dead ends, bones picked clean, I picked up where I had left off. After a hiatus of more than ten years, I returned to piecing together the story of my family.
Fueled by an ungodly number of cups of coffee, and a subscription to Ancestry.com, I started in and found myself clicking away and going back further and further on both sides until my family tree began to resemble and out of control Hydra.
I discovered that I had relatives named Dangereuse, Petronilla, Anne of Sussex and Sigrid Haraldsdotter. I found out that while my entire life I have been told I am mainly of Irish and Scottish descent, that simply isn't true - the bulk of my ancestors were Norman. A thousand years ago, my surname - Gray - was DeGrais. I'm a Frenchie. (I knew I liked the French!) It was a strange discovery for me, since I have always identified with the Irish and Scottish underdogs - with the brave lilting tribes of the isles! No. I am descended from the line that crushed the Celts. William the Conquerer. Some guy who fought against William Wallace - ouch.
My ancestors have been beheaded, drawn and quartered and are said to haunt the halls of one of the most haunted castles in England, which, talk about telegraphing, is called Chillingham Manor.
I am related to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Kings Henry the I and II, Ethelred the Unready and Charlemagne. I am related to Donald, King of the Picts - the blue faced guys from the highlands. The reason the Romans took one look at Scotland and built Hadrian's wall. Apparently the Scottish blood in me was later replaced by the strange bedmates of the Scotch - the French.
(You know why the French think they are better? a friend asked me recently. Because they ARE. Happy Bastille Day by the way. Not that I care much or whatever. Bear with me as I change my identity some.)
I also I found out that my great-grandfather was illegitimate and that his wife - my great-grandmother, was his step sibling. That's not weird. I discovered that my third great grandfather, a valiant soldier in the Civil War, actually was court martialed for desertion. Anne of Sussex was so named because her actual family name was unknown. I found a whole passel of Swiss ancestors which probably explains my childhood fascination with Heidi and deep reverence for chocolate.
Like a wide-eyed Orlando, I was in a fugue state of coffee, mouse clicks and Google searches. My mind was swimming with the names of figures from history that had changed the world - and I am related to them!
My genealogical rampage made me reflect upon how history rises and falls and fortunes change - something that we know as an intellectual fact but somehow it becomes a bit more personal when the risen or fallen are somehow part of the sliding doors of your very existence. Had Lady Margaret Grey succumbed to the Bubonic Plague, as 1/3 of the population did - I would not be writing this. Why didn't she? Was she sheltered in Chillingham Castle, wearing a necklace of garlic?Why did that decidedly democratic illness skip her?
Exploring my ancestral roots also showed me, dismayingly, that my female ancestors were chattel, whose only currency was marriageability and the producing of male heirs. Among the notable ancestors I have, a series of duchesses, baronesses, countesses and minor princesses were ferried from country to country to marry at sixteen and eighteen years old. They died, on average, when they were about thirty five after having given birth to in the realm of ten children, only a little more than half of which survived to adulthood. The story was the same for the more ordinary female ancestors, save for the being ferried to another kingdom to do the marrying and child bearing.
In some lines in my family, I saw how the end of the feudal system provided new opportunities for freedom and financial independence. In other lines, I saw a failure to adapt to that change and fortunes that fell further and further as land, manors and heirlooms were sold off to survive. No Downton Abbey types in my family line. Nobody managed to hold onto their privilege after the third estate became free. 95% of my ancestors, it is useful to point out here, were most definitely in the poorer classes - a middle class was nonexistent. They were laborers and craftsmen. On a record from the 19th century, I have an ancestor whose job was listed as "cherry packer". I imagine her cherry stained fingers and aching feet and what our mutual ancestor Eleanor of Aquitaine would have made of that. What a funny, funny world this is. What a funny life.
The thing with genealogy is that it's fascinating until it isn't. In the end, it's just names and names and more names that scroll by, with scant information - only some facts. It doesn't reveal the liars or thieves. It says nothing about the heartbreaks and betrayals.
Given the fact that we all descend from Eve the Mitochondrial, and are all literally of the same fabric and in the same family, the only benefit, as far as I can tell, in knowing you are related Earl Grey is that you have some tea you can giggle about as you toss it in the cart.
We all have outliers, history makers in our family trees, but mostly we are descended from the nameless, the millions and millions who came before us, who lived, loved and died - sometimes horribly - sometimes in "S. America" in 1824 with no further explanation.
Genealogy does lend us a particular, almost painful perspective though, doesn't it? Maybe the reason we should look to our ancestors is not because we might find somebody famous - you probably will, at some point - but for some humility in the face of tide and time, for all our ancestors have been through so that we might live, here and now.
It has felt like the end of times before. There have been wars, disease and terrorism, betrayal, suspicion, capricious leaders, bad agreements, shortages and total collapses of systems and resources. Yet here we are.
If genealogy does anything - it reminds us of that simple, beautiful, awesome fact. Here we are.