Why would anyone in his right mind want to write a family history?
Why would anyone with a normal zest for life choose to squander precious leisure time on a project that seems to be endless and offers no certain hope of publication?
Why would someone who cares about the feelings of others—and about their feelings towards onself—undertake a project that runs every risk of upsetting the apple cart of family relations?
After all, a family history awakens memories by necessity, and not all memories are happy ones. It asks witnesses to relive a potentially difficult period of their lives—childhood—and adopt a new perspective on what they may consider a closed chapter. It runs the risk of pitting family members, who may have sharply diverging views of the past, against one another.
So why do it? Why take on such a difficult and uncertain project?
I pose this question, not because I require answers, but because others might require them. After all, I am propelled by my own mania, and my own reasons are self-evident to me. But in others—especially my relatives, who have indulged my many requests for information—I sense a need for some clarity about my long-running project.
So here are some answers, or attempts at answers.
I write family history because it provides terrific material. When I investigate my family’s past, I find a powerful springboard, capable of launching me in any direction. Using my family history as a prompt, I can write about marriage, sibling relations, medicine, psychology, science, history, and politics—almost anything I choose to explore.
I write family history because it reveals a middle way of thinking about my clan, a way that transcends nostalgia, sentiment, and judgment. It’s easy to reflexively look on the past as a golden age. It’s easy to fall into settled patterns of thought about your relatives. It’s easy to form opinions about your kin, and to let those opinions harden into judgments.
Family history breaks up those patterns of thought. It reforms opinions and calls previous judgments into question. When you consider the times your relatives lived through, the dilemmas they confronted, and the options they faced, you see your forebears anew.
I write family history because it gives me a chance to prove my mettle. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. It summons more ingenuity, delicacy, and perseverance from me than anything I’ve ever attempted. That alone seems like a good reason to take on the job.
I write family history because it’s funny. It’s funny that one grandfather was an inveterate tightwad, who parted reluctantly with every nickel, and it’s funny that my other grandfather shot a seal while standing guard duty on the seashore in World War II.
It’s funny that my uncle, who is inept with mechanical devices, once ruined a car because he let it run out of oil, even though he was checking the dipstick weekly. It’s even funnier that he learned about cars from my father, who was just as ignorant about them as he was.
I write family history because it humanizes my relatives. If you are fortunate enough to come to delve into your family’s past, your relatives’ quirks become downright endearing. There’s something ineffably sweet about the way my great-grandfather ate a fried egg—first the white, in pieces, and then the runny yolk in one gulp. It’s also touching that my uncle, who was a small child at the time, seized on this one bit of behavior and still remembers his grandfather by it, decades after Baba passed away.
Finally, I write family history because it awakens wonder. Gaining access to the past is a miraculous exercise, akin to time travel. It’s like piercing a veil or sweeping aside a curtain: What once was invisible and unknowable becomes intimately known, like a diorama. The sure, sudden intuition by which you grasp the motives of the characters only deepens the miracle.
Then your own relatedness comes into play. These are your ancestors who strut and fret, whose hair, brow, and nose you share, who have bequeathed to you your musical gifts, short temper, or sweet tooth. Here are the people whose lives have prefigured your own. Step forward and greet them. They are waiting for you.