Pondering their stories

So I’ve chatted from time to time here about interesting ancestors–interesting to me, anyway. I’ve always been fascinated with ancestral stories and how they shape us, the knowledge that some part of what and who we are is predetermined. To what extent, we may never know, but I’m intrigued by the latest secrets science is teasing out of strands of DNA. (Did you know that the DNA of people who have suffered tremendous trauma–the Holocaust, for example–is permanently altered and passed in its altered state to their offspring?) How much of their experience, their lives, their passions and dreads and talents and fears, reaches down to us?

When my parents had DNA tests done, the results were astonishing. Between the two of them, they had genetic material originating on four different continents. Their ancestral maps spread from Europe, across the Mediterranean to north Africa and along the Silk Road to southern Asia. A slender ribbon of North American Indian turned up in my mother’s line. But was it entirely unexpected? I have set books in locations I have never visited, lands I’ve never traveled, but the DNA map says my ancestors were no strangers to those places. Does something within us remember? If I stood on the top of a mountain astride the Caucasus, would it feel familiar? If I waded into the Bay of Bengal or touched the shores of Algeria, would I know I had come home?

Daphne du Maurier, one of my desert island authors, wrote: “As an individual living here and now I am only too well aware that I possess feelings, emotions, a mind and body bequeathed to me by people long since dead who have made me what I am.” That is the best explanation I’ve found for why I chase the stories of my ancestors. Every fact I discover about them is another puzzle piece to define me. Stories run in the blood, and the more of them I know, the more of me I know.

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