Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Coming home to a place you have never been before

Credit to John Denver for the idea in the title of this post even if my words are not an exact quote. See Wikipedia:Rocky Mountain High. The whole subject of genealogy and/or family history is wrapped up in our emotional responses to our own personal experiences and those of our ancestors. In a real sense, investigating one's own past and those of one's ancestors is a way of discovering who we are and how we relate to our world experiences. In this context, our home is the place where we feel most comfortable and where we really belong.

One of the things in the not too distant past that sparked a surge in interest in family history was the book and TV series, Roots by Alex Haley (Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976). In a real sense, the whole Roots story is about going home to a place you have never been. The concept of a "home" or even a "homeland" is complex. For example, when people ask me where I come from, I always say a little town in Eastern Arizona, even though I was actually born in Utah. Now why is home the small town rather than acknowledging the State of Utah? Could it be that most of my ancestors, back three or four generations lived in Arizona?

For me, home is Arizona, not Utah, even though I lived in Utah for years. I can still remember the specific point in time when I realized that Utah was not my home. Literally, home is where the heart is, no matter how trite that may sound. Interestingly, with an ancestral connection, many places have felt like home, even places I was visiting for the first time. I think this emotional involvement with our ancestors and our ancestral homes is one of the most powerful motivating factors in genealogy. I find it sad when people approach genealogy as if it were happening to someone else. They gather names, but they never go home. Their knowledge of their ancestors is so superficial that they do not give themselves a chance to go to where their ancestors lived and feel the emotion of coming home.

I think the whole idea of promoting stories and photos is an attempt to create this feeling of belonging and going home. I have always been a little skeptical about the idea that as people become involved in the stories and the photos, they will somehow be captured into doing genealogy, that is, searching out their family history in a systematic and organized way. Wouldn't it be more reasonable to expect that those who were investigating their families would find the emotional connection with those they were investigating. Maybe I came at this whole genealogy thing backwards. I heard the stories and saw the photos when I was young, but it was not until I had years of experience doing research on my family that the emotional side took over and I began to have that feeling of going home.

In this sense, I strongly disagree with the phrase made popular by the Thomas Wolfe novel, "You Can't Go Home Again." (See Wolfe, Thomas. You Can't Go Home Again. Dell, 1934 of over 200 editions). To me, the phrase that has come to mean that you cannot connect with a previous way of life is basically a lie. Although it may not be possible to entirely recapture the earlier physical aspects of your life or that of your ancestors, you can certainly relate to the joys and sorrows of the past. In a real sense, the validation of searching out your ancestors is this ability to recapture the emotional content of the past. By actually visiting some of the places, although they may have changed dramatically, those feelings of belonging and home come to life.

I sometimes wonder if there is any quantifiable information tying familiarity with ancestral photos and stories to subsequent interest in genealogy. I can remember being preoccupied with names and dates and places until the stories I had heard all along started to take over from the bare research. I recently was looking at some old photographs, taken in my early childhood, and I was almost overcome with the emotions those simple photographs evoked. My response is more affirmative than Thomas Wolfe or any novelist, yes, you can go home again. Yes, you can connect with your own past and the past experiences of your ancestors. But you should not be satisfied with the hors d'oeuvres of partially remembered stories or edited photographs. To really return home, you need to become immersed in the reality of your ancestors' lives and your own.


  1. Arriving at Gatwick airport, south of London, for the first time, we both felt like we had 'come home'.

  2. I recently read an article recently that we are always trying to find Eden, which I feel is incorrect, although perhaps we are trying to create our own Eden. The most I ever felt "at home" was in Northern Ca, where I spent six years of my childhood, and I have been in AZ for almost 18 years and it is definately not home. I need rain and moisture and the crisp cold in autumn! Our family is moving out of the region soon, hopefully to find home. Interestingly, my husband was born in Mesa and we live in the house he grew up in. At thirty he has never felt "at home "I here.