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(Re)visiting Life- the reason we write family history?

Posted by on November 16, 2013

I came across an article recently which had been written earlier this year.  As part of my family history research, I also research economic and political themes to gain a perspective on where some (monetary and political) systems have originated and how they have evolved.  This is important in understanding the context of my family’s migration from Europe to America in the early decades of the last century.  Initially, this research was tied with a separate writing project of mine, a rather heavy endeavour exploring Capitalism and Democracy.  Post-2008 with the plethora of articles and books written exactly about these two topics my research efforts gained ground.  However more recently, I find the “Democracy” side of the coverage has waned and yielded to “Capitalism” on what seems to be the back of anxious reader sentiment for a global economic turnaround.

The article itself, titled “The joy of re-reading” by Joan Wickersham, was part of the January 28, 2013 edition of The International Herald Tribune.  It caught my attention at the end of one of my marathon research evenings when I didn’t want to be doing any more reading , much less any “re-reading” of anything.  But the bold text, set in the middle of the article and summarising its main premise, that “one of life’s great joys is re-reading.  The stories don’t get old; the books change because we change” was enough to have me read one more article that night.    It went through some classic books such as Great Expectations, Ethan Frome and Middlemarch, venturing to presume what any one of them might mean to us at various stages of our lives.  Through briefly reviewing plot and characters, the article’s author showed how the same book can mean one thing to us in our teen years (especially if we have been asked to read it in school as opposed to of our own volition) and something completely different 20 years later; and then again 30 or 40 years later.  The article ended stating, “Re-reading never gets old.  The books change because we change.  The great books get greater as we understand them better: reading them over and over, and knowing that we will never be finished”.

I was left to consider what my own undertaking to write my family history really meant, or what anyone’s effort to write their family history could mean.  This isn’t to say that such a re-reading and the different results it produced at various stages of life could only come from a great book as much as from the more modest effort of relaying a story.

Do we wish to explore, interview and finally write about our family histories simply because we want to leave something behind, because we want to create a legacy for our family and the ancestors which came before us?  Do we take in the fact that reading our family’s past in order to write our family history is a way to re-visit those lives and somehow make them relate to our own life today?  Do we then expect that if we re-read our family’s past in the form of a completed family history years or decades down the road that it will mean something different to us; that it will shed new light on a part of our past that we didn’t see before?  Should we expect that future generations of our families, upon reading the same family history, will then re-read it and understand an altogether different story from the one we intended to write?

© Kristina Tzaneff



4 Responses to (Re)visiting Life- the reason we write family history?

  1. Diana Devlin

    This really set me thinking and is very timely, as I have currently lost sight of my motive in exploring my family’s history. Thanks. Maybe an item for discussion?

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    I too have pondered my motives but a definitive answer is elusive. I think maybe that in our mobile society we miss our wider family as generations of aunts, cousins or even siblings no longer live close by. Our family history puts us back in touch with our ‘clan’.

  3. Susie Gutch

    Enjoyed reading your recent piece, and as Diana suggests, I think it would be a good topic for discussion at our next meeting – especially the last paragraph. Of course, we have no idea what future generations will make of our efforts. I just hope they will be pleased to be able to identify more of the faces in the photographs and get some sense of the personalities of the people described.
    In that way, I believe we really are trying’ to give voice to the past.’
    The key thing is to keep writing!

  4. annie hedington

    If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going. I believe the gathering of genealogies and stories about the past and the ancestors, and their transmission to descendant generations, has been bred deeply into successful communities. It gives them identity and cohesion, maintains awareness of familial links, obligations and boundaries – including taboos on too-close familial marriages. We can rationalise about motives that may vary over time, but I think we’re responding fundamentally to a very “basic instinct.”

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