The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 28, 2006

Climbing the family tree (Or—a banana for Brian)

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:14 am

Brian Hennigan, columnist for the Scotsman, an Edinburgh newspaper, recently wrote a snide attack on genealogical research (“Family Trees make monkeys of us all,” April 18, 2006). In it, he suggests that burgeoning on-line genealogy sites allow the weak-minded to slide into fantasy-land and dwell in the realm of the trivial. For retirees, he sneers, genealogy is “a way of checking out their soon-to-be neighbours.” For the rest, it is a “pointless hobby.” Those who think their family history speaks about their present-day identity are deluded, he says. Those who find their ancestors interesting are themselves crushingly not.

Genealogists ought to go “all the way,” he insists, hoping to someday see ”a family tree that ends in a picture of a monkey” and a comment of “now I know why I’ve always like bananas.”

So, Brian, what did a genealogist ever do to you?

Is it that you don’t see the point because you think you are the most interesting thing that ever happened in your family line?

From his burst of outrage, I can tell that genealogy is as popular in the British Isles as it in the U.S. Quite obviously, the urge to investigate one’s origins is universal, and it must be more than self-indulgence or navel-gazing that motivates so many. Whenever I mention my ancestor research, the response is always enthusiastic.

Although one of Hennigan’s criticisms of family research is that inevitably people discover being “descended from something noble or noble-ish,” if he ever bothered to read what researchers say in on-line discussion boards and gen blogs, he’d know that family history is not about pumping up the old self-image. Rather, it’s about work: hours of detail-sifting and note-taking. Then comes the hypothesizing—about people’s inner motives, the pressures on them, the choices they made in a distant time and space. In other words, it’s about constructing history.

Few of us, in fact, have the luxury of researching ancestors with influential, and thus well-documented, lives. We are more like detectives, picking up the few clues left by people whose lives passed without notice by much of anyone other than the town clerk, the parson, and the undertaker. About this poverty of remnants we can only feel grief: so many lives slipped away into nothingness. About finding a scrap of proof, there is amazement, even awe. Family names in church and census records are our equivalent of a shard of colonial redware, an old treaty rolled up in an attic, or a ruined foundation by an overgrown track in a forgotten woods. There is both familiarity and strangeness in the discovery—the universals of life so recognizable, the texture of their daily existence so remote. Names nearly foreign, Jannetje, Jeronimus, mix with common George and Mary, Elizabeth and John. Occupations quaint or out-dated—tailoress, quarryman, street-car driver, washerwoman, laborer—in a time before labor laws, testify to bloody hard work, bodily toil, even daily pain almost unbearable to think about.

In one way, Henninger is right (if you could get past his snotty tone) that family historians are about “piecing together where your famine-struck ancestors had their last baked potato.” Along the path of ancestor discovery lies a blooded connection to the history of the times. When your find out your great-great-grandmother’s last home was a sod burrow in a thicket, what can you feel but pity and rage?

And if you’re descended from washerwomen, how can you not crave to know, regardless of Henninger’s cocky sneer, “where [your] ancestors hung their washing”?


1 Comment »

  1. Interesting article. thanks a lot.

    Comment by paddy — March 18, 2007 @ 12:58 am |Reply

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