What I learned during the COVID “situation”

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Perhaps your family, like mine, has engaged in genealogical research in recent years. What I’ve learned is that everyone’s story (mine and yours) traces back to Genghis Khan, most of us are eligible to become Daughters of the American Revolution, and our fondness for the lute likely originated with our great-great-great-uncle, King Henry VIII. (Full disclosure: That might not be totally accurate. Details of a 23andMe search were shared at a family Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, and it’s possible I didn’t fully understand how it works. It does, however, help explain why I’ve always liked a jaunty tricorn hat and clothes with a lot of unnecessary buttons. And lute music, for which I blame Sting more than King Henry.) (Note: I just call him Henry, since we’re related.)

I digress.

Beyond a few ‘greatest hits’ shared annually at holiday gatherings, I’ve never paid much attention to my family’s origins. I’m very much in the minority on that, though, because genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, second only to gardening. In fact, as of 2020 more than 30 million people (the majority of them Americans) had taken a DNA test matching them to their genetic relatives and determining where their gene pools began.

Why are humans so interested in identifying their origins? I think it’s because our origins are the narratives – the stories – of our lives. That’s really important because stories are the tools we use to understand virtually every aspect of the world. They’re how we make sense of our experiences – our successes, failures, and interactions. We use them to find insights about ourselves and make meaningful overtures to others. They inform how we move through the world, serving as the operating manual for our existence.

Ultimately, stories enable us to find commonalities with one another and to use that understanding to avoid danger or risk and to build and sustain communities. We use stories to create order of both the psyche and our external environment. Stories have a magical impact on us. In fact, recent neurological studies found that when a group of people listens to the same story, their brain activity becomes synced. In other words, stories bring us together.  

So, why are Americans in particular so interested in identifying our origins?

Perhaps it’s because we’re a nation of immigrants, meaning that we are, in a sense, rootless. If you aren’t American Indian, your family came from somewhere else in the world, and they made that journey not very long ago. Our immediate roots are indeed young and shallow. The United States has only existed as a nation for a couple of centuries. In fact, 2026 will mark our semiquincentennial or 250th anniversary. We are an infant of a country, and the majority of us began elsewhere in this richly diverse world. 

Undoubtedly, some have had more hours to fill while locked in their houses avoiding COVID. Others, according to news stories, prompted by thoughts of their own mortality, began searching for parents they’d never met, or children given up for adoption. 

In my case, the motivation to pay closer attention to the stories of my family has been different. COVID was just the beginning of a series of personal challenges that ranged from the emergence of a debilitating illness to career shifts to the sudden, untimely passing of two family members. March 2020 – June 2021 was, in a word, overwhelming. The challenges were life-altering, and I wasn’t sure how to move beyond the intense feelings of disequilibrium and occasional despair that I felt. 

But then I began reading the history of my family. 

I read about my great-grandfather, who in the late 1800s, when he was five years old, lost his mother to illness, then traveled on horseback with his father, brothers, and sisters from Oregon to Montana for a fresh start. He went on to become a renowned horseman and led a wild west show (among many other exploits). He also married and was the father of two sons. Could he have chosen a ‘quieter’ path and instead become a rancher? Probably, but he was a showman at heart. 

I also read about my great-grandmother, who in the summer of 1924, when she was 20 years old, said goodbye to her family in Rupert, Idaho, and boarded a train bound for Landusky, Montana, (more than 500 miles away). At that time, Landusky was one of the roughest, least developed parts of Montana. My great-grandmother wanted two things: to be a teacher and to fall in love (and be loved in return). She achieved both goals, despite nearly every odd being stacked against her, as they would have been for any single, young woman in early, 20th-century northern Montana.

These are just two (partial) stories out of many about my family that occurred roughly between the 1890s and the 1960s. As I read them over the last year and a half, I was constantly amazed at what bravery and resilience it must have taken to not just survive in such conditions, but to simultaneously find ways to express creativity and to seek and share love. 

After reading several such anecdotes, another thought occurred to me. 1890 to 1960? Some really significant things happened during that time frame that impacted the United States. Apocalyptic things, like two world wars, a stock market crash that ended the Roaring Twenties and kicked off the Great Depression. Also, the Korean War. And Polio! Yet, these life-altering, apocalyptic events didn’t deter any of my relatives from finding ways to express their creativity or to seek and share love. 

And that’s where the answer lies, I believe, in the realization that catastrophe is a feature and not a bug of human existence. Its form may change, but an apocalypse is always going to be with us in some form or another. It always has been. But it’s not the catastrophes that define us. We have the option of deciding that they are merely the background noise of other, more significant stories, ones defined by expressions of creativity and love.

As I continue to explore my genealogical narrative (especially the parts about Genghis Khan and Sting’s lute), that’s the choice I’m going to make. 

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