Retrieving the Ancestors

Almost as soon as I could read and write, I displayed a keen interest in genealogical research. I distinctly remember being about 6 years old, taking a texta and large sheets of butcher’s paper, and drawing up family trees from the book of Genesis. It was only much later I discovered this was actually quite a common practice in early modern Europe. Indeed, I retain a great fondness for Archbishop Ussher and his seventeenth-century contemporaries who used scripture, archaeology, and ancient genealogies to try to produce a comprehensive chronology of ‘world’ history from Creation to the present day. An early interest in Egyptian history was related as much to obsession with pharoanic genealogies as to the glittering attractions of golden masks or towering pyramids.

This desire to see how the pieces of the puzzle could be visualised and connected was undoubtedly related to that other great memory of childhood – reading the scriptures. Our evangelical parents had conducted family prayers for as long as I could remember. But my brother and I could not understand why we jumped around from one bible chapter to another, when our bedtime stories were read from cover to cover, front to back, left to right. So at about the same time as I began drawing biblical genealogies – in the spirit of what I would come to know as the expository preaching of the Reformation – we demanded of our parents that we treat the scriptures like any other book, begin at the beginning, and read a chapter a day right to the end. (We stopped about three years later, I think, somewhere around Ecclesiastes.)

When I was 9 or 10 and living in the USA, I read Alex Haley’s Roots. While I only dimly comprehended its narratives of slavery, race and the American dream, I responded strongly to the sense of tradition, of memories that survived the degradation of time and oblivion, to explain who we are and, perhaps, where we might go next. My parents purchased a corresponding board game from one of those countless great American cultural institutions, in which players had to name a particular ancestor (‘your maternal grandmother’).

This led to asking some simple questions. What were my grandparents’ names? My grandfathers I knew: Charles, because my father was Charles Jr, and Mick, because he had died before I was born. But my grandmothers were Nana and Grandma, and it was only then that I discovered they were  Emily Elizabeth and Joyce Marjorie Hope. What wonderful names! almost as good as Methuselah or Keren-happuch.

On returning to Australia later that year, we made the ritual pilgrimage to Sydney for Christmas. Grandma gently and generously told me what she knew, which was considerable, of her family history, including names of parents, grandparents, cousins and occasionally second cousins. My aunt Sandra introduced me to library research, and the treasures of birth, death and marriage records that in those days could be revealed by the miracle of a microfiche reader. Great-uncle Mel provided copies of family newsletters and correspondence that linked us back as far as the sixteenth century. And so the great obsession was born.

Thirty years and a couple of history degrees later, I am still retrieving the ancestors. Digitisation, automated indexing, online communities and now DNA testing have transformed the practice of genealogical research. Yet I remain compelled by those earliest questions: where did we come from? how do we connect to each other? what were the turning points that brought us into being? And, as I now watch the next generation grow up, how do we hand on this knowledge? How do we tell the stories of our ancestors in new ways that meet the needs of our own times?

With these questions in mind, and with a desire to practise a discipline of daily writing, I am reviving this blog. My aim is to tell some more of these stories, in a way that hopefully communicates across time, place, culture, and generation, and, I trust, attends to differences of context, judgment and meaning.

And if I do find a link back to Adam and Eve, I’ll be sure to draw you a chart.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Retrieving the Ancestors

  1. Leigh Mackay

    Great to have you back in this format. And more power to your arm

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