This past summer, I finally dipped my toe in the facebook pool. I know, I know. I jump on bandwagons long past the point when it might be cool and never, ever when it is cutting edge. Trust me, if the CPAs are doing it (even if she is rocking a belly button ring 'cuz I'm cool like that) then surely the trend in question is hopelessly passe (like the belly button ring - 'cuz I'm uncool like that). However, there are others arriving at the party even later than I am, and I was only recently f-befriended by a long lost cousin, C, who I think I last saw almost three decades ago during a visit to the midwest when I was 8.
Until I received her friend request, I'm ashamed to admit I literally hadn't thought of her in years. But reconnect we did, and it has been awesome. I'm fortunate that C has a fairly passionate interest in genealogical research. She has built an extensive family tree on Ancestry.com, documenting some of our forefathers (or forepeople for the politically correct?) back as far as the late 1600s. I don't have the dedication to do the research myself, but I find it all very interesting. It's kind of like the odd habit I have of enjoying a wander through old pioneer cemeteries, examining family plots and dates and birthplaces and ruminating about the relationships and lives of those marked by the gravestones. Ancestry.com lets me do that too - only all those people have a genetic relationship to me.
One fascinating thing that Ancestry.com provides (especially if you have a dedicated family member like C to do the hard work for you) is a search for notorious relatives back in the family tree. I discovered a surprising number of notable people with whom I share ancestors. For instance, apparently Jane Austen and I share a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent. Isaac Newton is listed as my 3rd cousin, 14 times removed, which apparently means one of my great, great, great grandparents had a direct ancestor 14 generations ago who was Isaac Newton's cousin. Now I know this is basically meaningless, as it's actually playing the six-degrees-of-separation game with a bit of genetics thrown in, but here is the list of other interesting characters named among my distant relatives:
Nathaniel Hawthorne (7th cousin, 4 times removed)
T.S. Eliot (7th cousin, 5 times removed)
Helen Keller (8th cousin, 6 times removed)
George Orwell (8th cousin, 11 times removed)
Agatha Christie (11th cousin, 2 times removed)
Katherine Hepburn (8th cousin, 3 times removed)
Julia Child (9th cousin, 1 times removed) - obviously don't share the cooking gene with her!
Bette Davis (9th cousin, 3 times removed)
Marlon Brando (10th cousin, 2 times removed)
Mae West (10th cousin, 4 times removed)
Sir John Alexander MacDonald, the first prime minister of Canada (2nd cousin, 11 times removed)
Gerald Ford (9th cousin, 1 time removed)
George W. Bush (11th cousin) - really?! Not even a few times removed? Horrifying even to a conservative such as myself.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. (11th cousin, 1 time removed) - Whew, dodged a bullet there. Good thing we never hooked up while I was nursing that crush on him back in the 90s.
C's parents have recently moved out of the family home and she has inherited piles and piles of family papers and pictures. This week she mailed me a CD full of old pictures, letters and other miscellaneous information that she has scanned about our shared ancestors. I fired up the CD, which was neatly organized by family and person. Although I was interested to see what she had gathered, I didn't expect to be as fascinated as I came to be. There are pictures going back to the 1800's and I pored over them, identifying family resemblances, observing progressions from childhood to advanced age, contemplating the personalities and relationships captured for posterity in a moment decades, or even more than a century, ago.
One of my favorite pictures is this one, taken of my grandmother in 1914 when she was fifteen years old. Her smile is so bright and unselfconscious, in contrast to many of the stiff, formal pictures taken of people back in the day when cameras were fairly rare and film precious and costly.
I never knew this grandmother, as she passed away six years before I was born. Unfortunately, the life of the bright young girl pictured here was a sometimes a hard one, as she suffered from epilepsy as an adult. The spark captured in this photo was dimmed over time. It makes me a bit sad.
Then there are the humorous discoveries. For instance - this is a photo of my dad as a baby. Not exactly a candidate for baby supermodel of the year, no? Actually, this is one of the more flattering baby pictures of my dad, since as an infant he appears to have had an ENORMOUS head, which he eventually grew into and is now perfectly proportional to the rest of him, thank you very much. As it happens, I take after him an awful lot, and I have a tiny head (physically speaking - others might argue that point on a metaphorical basis), so perhaps we were just born with huge melons that don't really grow after we arrive into the world.
Anyway, scanning through the photos from the period after I was born, I came across this photo taken when I was about 6 months old. I literally laughed out loud, because, despite the blurry photo, you can see I am a dead ringer for my dad, with the same goofy look on my face.
It was also interesting reading letters, news clippings, etc. that C found amongst the family papers, and it got me thinking. Publishing in the last century was almost exclusively hard copy - photos and printed word alike. Most of us adults are fortunate (or unfortunate in the case of some of those pictures) to have dusty photo albums, scrap books and manila files stuffed with documentation of our lives. For our descendants to make the discovery of these details, they need only stumble across the box and open the pages. So much of what we know about the lives of those in our past, both family members of little notoriety and the luminaries of history, comes from the power of the written word in hard copy - correspondence, memoirs, announcements, etc. - that have survived through the years. That is becoming a lost art in the digital information age.
I sometimes wonder, in a hundred years, will those that come after us have a huge amount of insight into who we were and how we thought thanks to the extensive digital persona created through the power of social networking, self-publishing and the ubiquitous nature of the digital camera? Or will all that information be lost due to the transient nature of bits and bytes that are easily erased or rendered inaccessible by the relentless pace of technology innovation? For any of those in the future that are interested in the past, I hope the latter isn't true.