Whenever I search the web for information on family history, I’m disappointed in the results. It’s not that the search hits aren’t helpful—I invariably find a slew of genealogy sites, which are indeed essential in researching my family’s origins. But genealogy is a means to me, not an end. The thrill of finding my great-grandfather’s name on a census form is only temporary. I want to know more about my ancestors than where they lived.
Reading family history is much more satisfying. I’ve read several great histories in the last few years, such as Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, to name a few. These books thrill me because they are well-researched and because they go far beyond the facts.
Lagnado unearths extensive detail about her family’s origins in Egypt, its exodus from that country in the 1960s, and eventual resettling in New York—then transcends these facts to create memorable portraits of her parents and extended family.
Danticat tells the story of her father and uncle and their very different responses to Haiti’s prolonged upheaval, then extends her narrative into a wide-ranging exploration of aging, politics, and sibling relationships, among other things.
Mendelsohn—who sets the standard for focused, intensive research—uses the factual material of his narrative as a springboard for a profound, extended meditation on loss, responsibility, and the sibling drama.
So what is family history? What story can I make from the facts gleaned in my research, the memories of my relatives (and my own memories), and the images and letters stored in the trove of family memorabilia? Although I can’t give categorical answers to these questions, I can at least sketch in a response.
First, the story is character-driven, like a good novel. My relatives were (or are) more than names with data attached to them. They had (or have) complex drives, aversions, limitations, and motives. Some were natty dressers, while others were not. Some had business acumen, while others worked at whatever job came along. A few were good with their hands. Most were not. At least one was a criminal. My family history is a collection of character studies, each one devoted to a quirky individual.
Second, my family history tells the story of relationships—of rivalries, squabbles, petty jealousy, and also of fierce, devoted love. It explores the ups and downs of my grandparents’ marriages, the sibling rivalry in my father’s family, and the tension between my maternal grandmother and her sister-in-law.
Third, my family history is political. Every family is buffeted by social turmoil. I learned this simple truth at an early age, listening to my relatives talk about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate.
One uncle is a radical. Another is conservative. In 1964, my radical uncle went to Tennessee to take part in the Freedom Summer, while my conservative uncle professed admiration for the views of William Shockley. Their arguments swirled around me, never reaching a conclusion. They’re still arguing, in fact. But my uncles taught me that human beings are political by nature, and that people sometimes use politics as a proxy for other feelings.
Fourth, my family history is funny—but not for the reasons my relatives would share. True, in my family, we excel at wisecracking. The Kubrins in particular are connoisseurs of the elaborate practical joke. But wisecracks and practical jokes are only funny in the moment. They run out of steam when you try to relate them. Besides, I think the funniest things about my relatives are their quirks and follies, like one uncle’s arachnophobia or the other’s hurried attempt to consummate his marriage immediately after—or was it during?—the Wiccan ceremony.
Finally, I hope my family history is, well, beautiful. There’s something wonderfully strange about my family and its bygone days. In some miraculous way, my relatives are connected to history—to Roy Cohn and his unscrupulous dealings, to Stokeley Carmichael and the SNCC, to Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, to the physicist Richard Feynman, to Daniel Ellsberg, even to Sir Isaac Newton and his alchemy. Something about my family demands the most immaculate treatment in print. In my mind, this story shimmers like a dream.
What do you think? What does the term family history suggest to you? What do you consider remarkable in the history of your own family?
© 2011 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.