Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Family Portrait

Last week my brother and I were bantering back and forth on instant messenger in attempts to recall our Grandmother's maiden name. I started Googling in hopes of finding records of my grandparents' marriage and was led down an hour long exploration of my maternal Grandmother's family tree. I can trace my Dad's ancestry back to the 12th Century. Underhills keep track of everything, apparently. But I've always known less about who was there beyond the last few generations from my Mom's side of things. As I was led deeper down the rabbit hole I  discovered this photo of my great great great grandparents and their family, aka my maternal grandmother's dad's parents. Following me?...that's okay, continue on.

The youngest child sitting on the mother's lap is my great great grandfather. The picture was taken just before the turn of the 19th Century. And as I stared at this picture, searching the faces for glimmers of resemblance or personality, I realized how absolutely little I knew about him. We look at pictures or hear facts about our ancestors and place them under a microscope of comparative analysis with ourselves. Does she have my eyes, did he have the same interests I do, was he brave, was she funny? Did they do something impactful with their time that still resonates in mine? The remnants and trinkets of our ancestors possess a magnetism and significance imbued from their rarity and obscurity. They're puzzle pieces that we know will never complete the picture but give us a hint or insight into ourselves and our origins.

 I began to wonder what legacy my depictions and possessions would leave for my family a century from now. And then I realized, I don't have as many precious possessions as I do stuff. Loads of stuff. Not only material items that are devoid of personal meaning, but pictures, videos and conversations that will be forever accessible through the click of a mouse. And while it's pretty incredible to realize that five generations from now, my decedents will theoretically have my entire life at their finger tips, it also makes it less special and mysterious. I have 2,769 pictures on Facebook. I have an E-mail account that records every conversation with Search features. My life will be mysterious to understand not for lack of information, but for too much of it.

I have this one picture of my great great great grandparents and their family. This was a special photo. It was an orchestrated event to capture this brood of 10, in the farmlands of rural Missouri, in a rare family portrait. And somehow, this image survived and was scanned onto a computer so I could find it in a search engine over a century thereafter. While technology and social networks actually help us discover more of those missing puzzle pieces of our past, it makes it easier to muddle our own legacies that we choose to leave. And that's something worth considering.

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