|The grave of my great-uncle John Teasdale Mackintosh in Odiham churchyard, Hampshire, England|
The other day when reading Alice Munro's semi-autobiographical story collection The View from Castle Rock, I ran across a quote that struck a chord with me. In the Epilogue, Munro is searching for the grave of one of her ancestors in an old graveyard in Joliet, Illinois. She writes about how many human beings, as they get older, get hooked on pursuing their family history.
"Once they get started they'll follow any lead. People who have done little reading in their whole lives will immerse themselves in documents, and some who would have trouble telling you the years in which the First World War was begun and end will toss out dates from past centuries. We are beguiled. It happens mostly in our old age, when our personal futures close down and we cannot imagine – sometimes cannot even believe in – the future of our children’s children. We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging onto the threads, insisting on being joined to dead people, and therefore to life.”
This is exactly how I felt when researching my own family’s history. Yes, it does become more important to us as we get older and can look back over the contours of our own lives and beyond them to those of the people from whom we are descended – gene by gene, chromosome by chromosome. But this is also how I’ve felt as I’ve slowly unearthed and pieced together the facts of the lives of the Salmons of Tahiti. It’s partly the thrill of the detective work involved in genealogical research but it’s also the very human need to find and tell a story. And for those of us with no children, the stories we tell are all we’ll leave behind us. They matter.