Saturday, 23 March 2019

Tending the Roots

The resident sweetie has caught a bug. He’s in its grip, and he hasn’t been able to shake it. You might even say it’s been taking over his life.

The bug? Genealogy!

A month or two ago, we went to a church breakfast at which a guest speaker talked about his passion for genealogy. He warned us about the dangers of getting involved, that once we dipped our toes into that water, we just might become addicted. I didn’t need another addiction...fabric and writing are enough to keep me on a high. So I wasn’t tempted.  But Al didn’t listen.

When we got home, he pulled our family history books off the shelf and revisited them. We are blessed to have 3 bound books covering three of our four branches of ancestry. The fourth branch is written up in a list of begats, stretching back to the 14th  century, assembled by a cousin. We also have a book written by my dad, a memoir of his life written when he was in his 70s. When we acquired these books and lists years ago, we thought they were pretty interesting. But being younger then, we didn’t dig much deeper.

And then we had breakfast with the genealogist. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle” (or “Bouke’s your Grandfather” if you’re Dutch), Al was registered with, a genealogy research engine on the internet. The internet has changed everything in this field. With click of a mouse and the flash of a credit card – ching-ching! – you can find all kinds of information without poking through thousands of dusty church record books.

This record of one of Al's forefathers is now digitized on line. 

Using the books as reference, he began filling in little boxes online with info he’d gleaned. 

Those little boxes led to everything else, including the fever that grips him now, the kind that has him muttering, “Just one more ancestor before bedtime” or wondering how he’s going to solve the mystery of someone on the tree who was born in 1749 and appears, according to the records, to have been baptized twice, five years apart.

I’m glad Al is doing this, but filling in the blanks is not my cup of tea. I’m much more interested in the stories behind the information. The stories tell me not so much about who I’ve come from, but rather about who I am right now. These stories reveal my ancestors’ passions, beliefs, characters, struggles and joys – the characteristics that formed the roots of my family. Roots are vital to a tree, and so are they to a family. Roots nourish, support, and anchor both a tree, and a family. The older I get, the more I understand and appreciate this.

Images of trees are important to me. This is one of many I've created.
When I was younger, I couldn’t understand my dad’s rigid loyalty to a conservative brand of Reformed religion. But when I read in my dad’s story that a great-great grandfather joined other tenant farmers in a court case against the rich landlord who thought he had the right to choose a a more liberal minister for the parish church, I begin to understand. Those were the roots he grew out of. (And, by the way, the farmers won their case.) When I read in a great-grandfather’s life story that his dad, a merchant of dry goods, was still peddling his wares door-to-door at the age of 80, and refused to retire, I begin to understand the pride of calling and the Calvinist work-ethic that is ingrained in our family.

My Great-great grandfather Lammert Lammerts Hofstra who died in 1900.
 “We do not choose to have roots,” writes Gilles Cusson. “We accept those we grew out of.” Ah, yes, acceptance! First we accept so we can appreciate, and then we can thrive and grow.

Four years ago, our family visited the grave of my grandmother, who died when my own mom was less than a year old.

I told my children and grandchildren a little bit about her story, a story I’d learned from my grandfather, and also my great-grandfather, both of whom wrote it down. She was dying of the Spanish flu, leaving behind a loving husband and a beloved child, yet on her deathbed, she told my grandfather, “Now darling, no crying today. It’s a day of celebration, put on your best clothes!” As I told the story, the grandchildren got to work, picking away at the moss that was covering the gravestone’s writing, then decorating it with little wildflowers they found in the grass around it. They were both listening and honouring, and absorbing the story into the fibres of their being.

“Just think, Oma,” said my oldest granddaughter, 11 at the time. “If she had not lived, we would not be here.”

Genealogy: the RS takes care of the logistics, and I will take care of the stories, so that our roots remain strong and well-tended. I like where this team work is taking us.