A friend of mine is drowning in ancestral paperwork. Books and papers are strewn across the floor of his study. Piles of legal pads are stacked at his desk. And a giant world map hangs on one wall with brightly colored stickpins inserted not only into various countries, but specific parts of those countries.
He’s been at this for years, he says. And there’s no end in sight. It’s tough work, hard work, but ultimately very rewarding. He’s slowly gathering the pieces to the puzzle of his past, trying to answer the very riddle that we all at some time ponder:
Where do I come from?
He told me that as a child he found an old family Bible in his grandmother’s house. Inside were the names of her parents and grandparents, and theirs, and theirs, stretching back almost two hundred years. The writing was faded and the pages were yellowed, but he was captivated. Like rolling down the window of a speeding car to take one look back before the next curve.
Sadly, there were just the names. No locations or dates. And as his grandmother was elderly, she could unfortunately offer little help in the way of more information.
That Bible now sits on his bookshelf. A keepsake and a reminder, one that says this is where it started.
He’s Googled and Yahooed. He’s written letters to both our government and foreign ones. He’s corresponded with researchers and genealogists. And he’s uncovered much.
So far as he can tell, he can trace his family back to medieval Italy. Rome, to be exact. His ancestors were quite wealthy. Landowners and artists and poets. And even statesmen. Powerful people. Important people.
He likes this. He’s proud of his ancestors and their position in life. He may be a simple plumber, but he comes from good stock.
Me, I’m a little fuzzy on the history of the Coffey name. My particular branch came to this country in the mid-1600s, mingled with some Cherokee blood, and settled in the Shenandoah Valley. Before that they were mostly Irish and Dutch. Fishermen, from what I can tell, and farmers.
I could dig deeper of course, and someday maybe will. But the truth is that I’m not concerned about the more affluent members of my family tree. I don’t care about landowners and statesmen.
I want to know what cannot be known. I want to know about those fishermen and farmers. The Nobodies.
The ones who carried on my family’s name despite the poverty and the gruel and the taxes paid to oppressive kings. The ones who had to endure sickness rather than be treated for it. The common ones who lived a common existence and dared sail a perilous expanse of water to start over and live better.
I think of them often. And I often wonder if they thought of me.
Did they pause with their hand on the plow or the net to ponder if their name would still be uttered in this world a hundred generations later? Or did their gaze only go so far as the next row of crops or the next wave over the bow?
Was I as fuzzy and mysterious to them as they are to me?
I spend a lot of time convincing myself that only now matters. Only here. This. But as I continue on through my life, I’m finding that a little difficult to accept. Now isn’t the be all and end all. It is the only moment we truly possess, but not the only moment that truly matters. Because I am the result of many moments and many decisions that mattered to people with whom I share a common bond. And those who come after me, my children and their children and theirs, will be the results of my own moments and decisions.
It is, without a doubt, a heavy burden we bear. We, you and I, stand upon the cusp of history. Thousands of years of ancestors have led to us, and perhaps thousands of years more depend upon us.
Not to be powerful and important.
But merely to endure.