David Bouchier: Ancestor Worship

Aug 13, 2018

Occasionally I think about my honorable ancestors, but not for long. There’s not much to think about. My mother was born in 1909 and her mother, also a centenarian, in 1884. Before that everything is lost in the smog of history. My father seems to have had no recorded ancestors at all.

Genealogy, the study of one’s family history, is a popular hobby, and one I have tried hard to avoid. Even as a child, I suspected that my family was a bit peculiar, and that the less I knew about it the better. In genealogy, as in archaeology, most of the truth is buried beneath the surface and may or may not be worth excavating. The portions of my family visible above ground, so to speak, didn't offer very great hopes that digging down into the past would produce anything impressive.

There was a time when family was destiny and ancestors meant everything. They still do if you happen to belong to one of the “royal” families of celebrity, politics, or money. But for the rest of us, what we hope from our ancestors, I suppose, is that they may shine the oblique line of their distinction on us, if they had any distinction. In this sense genealogical research is a kind of self-esteem therapy. If I can find someone illustrious in my family line they would reflect glory, however dimly, on me. No such ancestor has yet come to light, but you never know. Consider how many people claim ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, which must have been the size of a modern cruise ship to accommodate such a crowd.

Nobody wants to discover ordinariness in their past, although the vast majority of people always had ordinary lives. The chance of hitting the ancestor jackpot is small. Your great-great-great-great grandfather may have crossed the Delaware with George Washington in 1776, but it’s much more likely that he was chopping wood in some Appalachian backwater at the time.

Commercial DNA testing has pulled the rug out from under traditional genealogy. I haven’t tried it yet because I can’t face the disappointment. There are a few colorful stories about my family, which are probably pure fantasy, but fun, and I wouldn’t want to see them scientifically tested.

If the ancestors are disappointing, there are always the descendants. In fact, we may be seeing a shift from ancestor worship to descendant worship. Back in the days when people revered their ancestors, children were of little importance and were largely ignored. Ancestral portraits hung on the walls. Now it is children who are photographed and videoed every minute, their images displayed in the house, e-mailed to relatives, and posted on Facebook. It’s clear that they, not the ancestors, are at the center of the family universe. These soon-to-be-exceptional children shine the light of their distinction as it were backwards, from their future success. Anything can happen in the future, so pride doesn’t have to wait. And, after all, children are the future, and ancestors are the past.  As that old cynic Voltaire said, “Do well in this life, and you will have no need of ancestors.”

Copyright: David Bouchier