Why does family history matter?

Why does family history matter?

I asked myself that question as I put together some albums of ancestry for my kids for Christmas.

Is there anyone among us who hasn't lamented at some point, "Gee, I wish I would have asked Grandma - or Grandpa or Dad or Uncle Joe - more questions about the family while they were still alive"?

The other side of that coin is that often we do remember evenings spent reminiscing around the dining room table with older relatives, but nobody wrote it down - or better yet, turned on a recorder. Now the storylines blur and the memories grow foggier. And the silence that separates us from the dead seems quite intense.

And then there's that box of photos in the attic. Who the heck could this young man be?

I peruse the old, sepia-toned picture of someone, probably Grandma's brother or Grandpa's cousin, his name lost to posterity, but his face preserved.

When I visit an antique shop and see those framed photos, it stabs at my heart to think that someone gave those old photos away. But then I hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that maybe their descendants made smaller, more functional copies to keep. Or maybe they just didn't know who those folks were, staring out at them with the sober expressions favored in late 19th-century photography.

My Christmas project aimed to give my kids a sense of their direct lineage. I'm not the genealogist to compile page after page of cousins three times removed. I was not born with the scrapbooking gene, either, so my little enterprise is not "cute" nor is it even done with a very straight ruler.

What I do like are stories and anecdotes about the past. Relating ancestral stories is something that the Hebrew people did well. And when Jesus came along, the Gospel writers were quick to want to establish His lineage and tell a little about His family. Who you came from was very important to the Scripture writers in telling who you were.

My husband's grandparents all emigrated from Italy. It was exciting to receive an emailed photo of my husband's great-grandmother, who lived in Rionero, Italy, in the 19th century. It was sent to me by an Italian cousin. It was also fun to listen to my mother-in-law reminisce about her grandfather, whose photo adorns his gravestone in Rhode Island.

But for me, my Celtic roots have very special meaning, especially as it relates to Celtic spirituality with its deep relationship to the land and the environment. Two of my great-grandfathers came to this country because of the mid-19th-century Irish famine. One of them came as an orphaned young man from County Galway.

In his book Eternal Echoes, the great Irish writer and philosopher John O'Donohue wrote exquisitely about his own growing up in his homeland in Connemara in County Galway.

He says that in Connemara, "when someone asks a child who he is, the child is not simply asked for his name. The question is 'Ce leis thu?' i.e., To whom do you belong? There is a recognition in the language that your identity is not merely your own personal marker. You are both an expression and extension of an already acknowledged family line."

The Gospel writers knew that. They knew that the God who chose to be born into our world chose to be born into a family line, and that those lines matter.

Jesus was both an expression and an extension of His family tree, and so are all of us.

Maybe that's why family history matters.

Caldarola is a freelance writer from Anchorage, Alaska.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970