Tuesday, November 29, 2022
From the Atlantic:
You might think you already know your family’s stories pretty well—between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings, you may have spent hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles soaking up family lore. But do you really know as much as you think?
As a professor of anthropology, I have always been fascinated by the stories that families tell, and a few years ago, I started researching the tales that are passed down from generation to generation. Part of my motivation was personal. When my mother died in 2014, I realized how much I didn’t know about her life. I never asked the questions that haunt me now—questions about what interactions she had, what it was like to live in her time in the places she did. I wish I had a fuller sense of her as a person, especially how she was when she was young, with a lust for life.
In my research, I have been astonished to find that so many other people also know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, despite the fact that they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, were largely in the dark about their own family history. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, and especially what it was like before we came along. The people I interviewed knew so little about their grandparents’ or parents’ early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children. Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.