May 11, 2005

Know your family's past — your future depends on it

This week marks an important holiday in my household. Syttende Mai - Norway's Independence Day - falls on Saturday.

For my Norwegian wife, about the only holiday of any more importance is Christmas. For me, being mainly of English descent, I shudder at the notion of Norsemen having any freedom whatsoever, I see Vikings storming my ancestors' shores, burning villages and looting churches.

But all of that is in the past. Besides, what's important now is familial bliss.

• • •

Recently, after reading Mark Salzman's novel "The Laughing Sutra," I'm reminded of how important a sense of the past and of family history can be to one's identity. Salzman tells the story of an adopted Chinese boy who has no idea who his biological parents are. With no sense of where he came from, the boy finds himself isolated.

Statements such as "Your grandfather was just like that" lack meaning in a world where habits and behaviors are not definably inherited or learned. This week, that knowledge particularly strikes me as my wife, being adopted, only knows for certain that her heritage is Norwegian.

Understanding the past strengthens our sense of who we are today. Consider Alex Haley's obsessive search for his roots. For Haley, a descendant of slaves, it was a catharsis.

• • •

Indeed, whenever I find a situation before me overwhelming, I invariably think of my Bignell ancestors who first came to the New World. Having suffered through a series of devastating grain crop failures in 1840s England, they loaded a ship with few possessions and no money to forever leave behind the land, family and friends they knew.

On their journey, violent storms whipped across the Atlantic; the youngest children were tied to the ship mists so they would not be blown overboard. Certainly if they could survive that, I can weather whatever life in our convenience-oriented modern times throws at me.

After arriving at a Canadian seaport, my ancestors were content to farm the land for the next five generations, first taking on wheat then cornfields. Despite the disasters that propelled them across an ocean, despite their travails in coming here, they knew what mattered: a piece of land to raise their children and to grow old upon.

Their small pleasures came from family and the satisfaction that their labors would ensure the continuation of that happiness. It's a lesson I always remind myself of whenever my head begins to twitch with the notion that I'm not moving up the corporate ladder quite fast enough.

• • •

The past also can tell something about where we're headed. The present, after all, does not occur in a vacuum. It's predicated on what we did yesterday, last month and the year before.

Our decision to ignore others' feelings about our actions often only leads to tragedy - our failure to predict Sept. 11 or to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely is based on viewing the past as a series of dates and facts rather than an ocean of passions and emotion lapping at the shore of the present.

Of course, there also is the biological advantage of knowing one's past: various ailments and diseases often prove hereditary. In my case, each first son of every third Bignell son, for at least the past five generations, has fathered twins (Which I'm told can be quite a bundle). So far, my wife and I have elected not to have children.

Guess which son I am in the family line.

• • •

If you haven't looked at your family's past, you ought to.

Yes, there might be some embarrassments (Everybody's first cousins married one another in the 1800s, OK?), but in those stories also are great tales that hold the secrets of who we are and who we ought to be. Even the most seemingly dull lives carry such truths.

Indeed, my great-great-great grandmother raised 12 children, but on her grave are words about perseverance and loyalty that reach into the 21st century for their wisdom: "Having finished Life's Duty she now steadily rests."

(originally published May 11, 2003)

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