Last week I took a trip to San Francisco City Hall to obtain copies of the marriage certificates of my grandparents and my parents. This was the next-to-last-piece of a project my daughter Lauren and I have been working on for about a year, collecting the vital records of four generations on my dad’s side of the family – birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates.
This project, and especially the trip to SF City Hall, has had me thinking a lot over the past week about connections to the past. Who were the people that came before me . . . what impact has that had on the life I have . . . what part do they play in the life of my family . . . why is it important? Is it important?
The trip to SF City Hall had a different effect on me than my visits to other Bay Area county clerks’ offices as we’ve been collecting documents. The history is palpable in this City Hall – the architecture, the marble, the ceilings. It was easy to imagine my grandparents in 1925 as a young couple about to be married visiting that same building to apply for their marriage license. I found a digital image of the record book where their names and the date of their marriage were recorded in the handwriting of the person who recorded their information while they likely looked on. I also found the digital image of the record book where my parents’ information was written, and I imagined how excited my mother must have been – a 19-year-old girl from sleepy Santa Rosa walking into that beautiful and important building with her Prince Charming to obtain their marriage license.
I’m thinking about this project on which Lauren and I have been partnering and her investment of time to research and locate these family history documents. Does she feel more connected to her grandparents and the great grandparents she never knew as a result? Are these documents able to tell her a story about where she comes from?
I grew up surrounded by generations of relatives who created context with their lively Italian conversation, tales of family members long gone, and “old country” songs. I experienced the relatedness of these people to whom I was linked by our shared blood and lineage.
But my children don’t have the same opportunity to be connected with our family history by the simple fact of the lack of physical connectedness. People just aren’t here. Our older relatives have passed on, and in a world where technology has facilitated people’s ability to live far from their families of origin, my children’s experience of their heritage is diluted.
Maybe this digital connection to our ancestors and family heritage – the ease with which we are able to research and locate vital records – is taking the place of the neighborhoods where extended families used to live only blocks away from each other. Maybe that’s why many people are so excited to uncover the keys to their genetic history through now-simple genetic tests. It does create context. Not in the same way that experiencing the Italian conversation around holiday tables did for me, but in a way that’s possible today.
Is it important? I think it is.
How do we know who we are if we don’t learn where we’ve come from? And how do we give our children roots in a world where our neighborhoods are taking up residence in cyberspace? Can we keep our legacies alive in the digital social environment?
Maybe this is how we do it.