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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mommy, where did I come from?

Family to me is a fantasy - and I like it that way.
One result of my arm's-length kind of upbringing is an exaggerated reverence for the people to whom I'm related. When you don't really know a person, you get to believe whatever you want to. In the case of my mother and father, I chose to believe they were untouchable because they were better than everyone else, and this makes me proud to be their daughter.
When it comes to the more distant relatives and ancestors, the sky's the limit. Those people are a complete mystery, so if I want I get to be descended from a long line of romantic characters, all of them bright, worldly, popular and good-looking. 
But who are they, really? Who am I, really? Do I want to know, really?
I seem to have conditioned myself to repel any kind of intimacy with people, even though I crave it, because I'm most comfortable when there's literally nothing for me to lose. 
Now the boss has asked me to step outside my comfort zone and take on a personal challenge. A colleague of mine is tackling his fear of needles by taking a knitting class. Really. If Smith can be that lame, then so can I. I've chosen to plunge into the deep, dark, skeleton-stuffed closet that is family history: I signed up for the genealogy class. 
Sheridan College offers an online course in genealogy, under the "personal enrichment" category. This was perfect for me because it accommodates my awkward schedule, constant car trouble, and winter-driving incompetence. 
My first assignment was to build a family tree going back four generations. That's just the names, dates, and places, I thought, how hard can it be? More importantly, how personal can it be?
Turns out not all those dates and places are so easy to find without actually talking to people. And when you talk to people, you get a lot more information than you were looking for. Like that your father doesn't know his own mom's birthday but he can remember his ex-wife's Social Security number, kind of thing. Happily, that isn't what happened to me. I talked to my mom and was able to fill in most of my blanks. Somehow those dates and places came with quite a bit of gossip that shook up my happy fantasies. Who knew?
That was just the first assignment; it's bound to get more traumatic as I delve more deeply into this thing. Still, I'm determined to see it through, even if it leads me to a great-step-cousin-in-law named Adolf Hitler.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the class. I like learning why some records are easier to find than others and some are more accurate than others; the history of the census process; and the evolution of American culture that has dictated which information is public and which is not. There are some social lessons as well, like how to get your relatives talking about family secrets they have kept for years. 
Personally, I'd like to learn how to get them to stop talking before I hear something I don't want to know, but I said I'm doing this and I'm doing this.