Pictured above: my great-grandfather Nicolas, Kathryn (whom my mother was named after) and their three children.
My older brother recently, stunningly, hand-penned an elaborate family tree — the result of his years-long obsession with connecting the dots on our father’s side. In some places, he managed to solve familial mysteries dating all the way back to 17th century New France where my ancestors landed from Saintonge.
For reasons I can’t entirely explain, the tree, which is full of surprises (how, I wonder, did it ever grow so fulsome given the absurdly large number of nuns and priests populating its branches?), is comforting to me.
I read recently that genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States. While I personally haven’t spent a lot of time chasing it (nor have I engaged much in the No. 1 activity: gardening), I get it. Tracking down ancestors is no longer an aristocratic obsession motivated by a desire to attach oneself to royalty; instead, from what I can see and how I feel about my own tree, it’s rooted in personal connection and storytelling. Last year, I ordered both of my parents genetic testing kits. Their results were fascinating; each of their global ancestry profiles contained nuggets of interest and surprise. As well, through the service, my mother has connected with previously unknown relatives she hopes to meet.
My Great Grandfather Rudolphe
I think the comfort I find in all of this is simply being reminded that I have a long history. While as an individual I’m spectacularly dwarfed by the universe, these others that came before me comprise the luminous, infinite tail on my shooting star; I feel part of a very long story about a very big family.
Not everyone gets to know, like I do on my father’s side at least, how and where their tree has grown. I have friends who don’t, and may never, know who their biological parents are. Still, this renewed interest, and ease, with searching and sometimes discovering and overturning secrets that never should have been withheld is both meaningful and humbling.
We’re going to France this summer, where I hope to make a detour to the coast to see where my ancestors lived and worked, and struggled and thrived. I can’t know their personal stories, but I know they’ve shaped mine — and I’m grateful for my burgeoning sense of belonging to people and places far beyond my modern scope.