Tracing family ancestry is all the rage these days.
Back when my grandmothers were charting out their family trees, genealogy was slow and tedious work.
The Internet and the science of DNA testing have changed all that. No longer is searching for family roots a solitary elderly pursuit whose path is strewn with dust, silverfish, smudgy typewriter ribbons, magnifying glasses, rulers and black ink. My grandmothers would no longer have to pin on their hats and embark on long bus rides to faraway libraries. They wouldn't need to hike to the post office to send information requests with signed, self-addressed envelopes to government agencies, then wait for weeks for the return mail. They could just sit down at the computer, go to ancestry.com and push a button or two to print out any documents they wanted.
Genealogy has become mainstream. There are even television shows, like "Finding Your Roots" on public television, and Nova's "Cracking Your Genetic Code," dramatizing the exciting detective work of tracing the family lines of famous people like Meryl Streep and Branford Marsalis. It turns out Stephen Colbert is the whitest man ever tested on one of these shows. I think he was disappointed. Many people, and I am one of them, long for some exotic thread to turn up in the family fabric.
None of us can come to know or understand all of our direct line ancestors. There are too many of them. For example: two parents; four grandparents; eight great-grandparents, and so on. If you go back 10 generations, there are 2,048. Just one more generation yields 4,096 forebears in your direct line.
I've noticed that a person, for reasons of personal preference, will often choose to hang his or her hat on one twig of the family tree, to the exclusion of all the other branches.
My grandmother Allen was proud to identify with the Daughters of the American Revolution, for example, while I myself enjoy carrying on about John Howland, my Mayflower ancestor on my Grandfather Aldrich's side. My maternal grandmother claimed kin with the Highland Scots, a more romantic bunch, at least in her imagination, than her English predecessors, or the Irish, who I have just found out about.
Grandpa Allen was the mayor of Birmingham, Michigan. He built a big house there that is now a museum. Grandpa used to tell us, "Three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves," and that has proved to be correct, at least in our family, depending on how you count. His father, John Allen, was a laborer best remembered for his habit of peeing off the stone wall of the big house into the woods.
My father told me that story. As a small boy brought up in a strictly proper household, he admired his grandfather for that feat; probably he was awed by the bravado of it. I doubt whether the rest of my family wishes to hang its hat on that particular twig, but there it is.
For every pirate, horse thief, artist, statesman, renegade priest or poet in your family tree, there are probably hundreds of people whose lives were less colorful, or simply less appropriate to whatever image you are hoping to project at this particular point in your life. Since America is a nation of immigrants, most of us have ancestors with dramatic stories about how and why they came to this country.
When my mother was ill a few years ago, I went home to care for her. At that time I asked Greg Kowalski, the editor of "the Birmingham Eccentric," a local newspaper, if he would be interested in some articles on area history. After all, my family lived in and around Detroit for generations. No, he replied, he had no interest in "the illustrious Allen family."
Illustrious Allen family? This seemed to me unnecessarily sarcastic, especially coming from someone else with deep Detroit roots.
Greg Kowalski is part of the famous Hamtramck sausage-making family. The Kowalski business was known to me early in life, because it sponsored the Kowalski Sausage Cinema, a televised cartoon show I watched with my sisters and brothers every weekend. I particularly remember a cartoon bird that used to shriek "Call! Call! Kowalski!"
Kowalski has published several books on the Polish-American experience, including "Wicked Hamtramck: Lust, Liquor and Lead" (2010).
It just goes to show that everyone has his or her specific focus. It's hard to see the forest for the family trees.
Have a good week.