Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

Sounds like the first question heard before a fight breaks out, but that's not what I mean.  I'm talking about the premise behind the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are? - where celebrities trace their ancestral roots and find out 'who they really are'.

First off, let me go on the record as saying that I don't believe anyone's family history represents who they are as individuals.  I just find the research into familial past interesting.  (If you get a chance to watch the Matthew Broderick episode, for instance, he's related to a soldier who died in the Civil War.  Pretty eerie considering Broderick's movie Glory.) 

Recently I was chatting with my middle sister and she mentioned that Mom has been trying to find out more information about her great grandmother - my great great? - but she's coming up empty.  I flexed my fingers, cracked my knuckles and dove in.  Nada.  I even went to the Ellis Island Record Search.  We know Grandma Anna came over around 1901 and entered the US at Ellis Island, but...  Well, we're not 100% sure about the spelling of her name and she might not have come through Ellis.  I'm not giving up, but finding info on women is always harder because our last names change.

In the past, I've researched the infamous cousin Otto - a background figure in Hitler's cabinet.  All my life, I've heard stories about the man - kind of a cautionary tale, if you will - but I didn't know how much of what Dad told me was true.  Otto worked for Hitler, Otto was acquitted at Nuremberg.  I did the same search a couple months ago, and cousin Otto has his own Wikipedia page now.  (We've always called him 'cousin' but we don't really know how he's related.  Still, look at his nose.  That's the good old Meissner nose.  My Dad's nose, his brother's nose, my brother's nose...)  Turns out in this case, Dad was right.  Other than working for Hitler - grandfathered in because of his work for Kaiser Wilhelm - Otto wasn't proven to be a really bad man. 

Using Google, I found more information about my paternal grandfather - the first chief of police for Melvindale, MI.  Their website has his name wrong - it was Wilhelm and Meissner has two Ss - but he's right there for the world to see.  (Grandpa supposedly arrested several members of The Purple Gang.)  I can even find a mention of my father - when he worked for the Nixon campaign in 1969.

Supposedly we're also related to President Zachary Taylor and General Sherman - on my mother's side - but I don't have any proof of that.  I do know that Mom's paternal side of the family hailed mostly from Tennessee.  (There's even a possibility we're related to The Judds.  "Say hey, cousin Ashley, could you invite me to your next premier?")  About a decade ago one of Mom's cousins - we have lots of cousins - did a genealogy search because he was joining the LDS Church and discovered a whole lot of stuff, which he passed along to other family members.  The paperwork Mom got included copies of the bills of sale for slaves. 

All of the above is interesting.  None of it makes me who I am.  I'm not responsible for the faults or the accomplishments of my ancestors.  I'm not a racist or a Nazi.  I'm not politically active or musically talented.  I've never been in the military and I'm not Mormon.  I'm also not German, Irish, Native American, Polish, Welsh, and English... Regardless of what my ancestral genes say.  I'm an American - whoever and whatever the rest of them were.

As far as I can tell, there isn't a single writer in the bunch - and when I boil all the background away, that's what really matters about who I am.  I'm a writer, a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend.

Who do you think you are?  Any golden apples or rotten fruit hanging in your family tree?

1 comment:

  1. I realy did enjoy this post and I do believe our lives are of our making, but I must disagree that our past kin do not have a small part in making us US.

    I have yet to meet my biological father and had known nothing about his or his (our) families existence. And yet I fell in love with books and writing at a young age (the grandmother I never met or knew of was a English professor and dean on a catholic school.) It was always mentioned that my demeanor was different than the rest of my family (turns out I am a lot like my bio fathers side or so I am told by many I have recently met). And that I share a very similar skill (one that none of my family has) with the man I never met. In the Mental Health field I used it to sway clients and calm folks, he used it to lie, cheat and steal. We are both persuasive and good liars.

    It wasnt so long ago that I learned about my biological father or his side of the family. But the things I have mentioned about myself, I have always been.