Monday, September 8, 2008
After Alex Haley published the book Roots, he said, "My hope is that Roots will start a ground swell of longing for people everywhere to go digging for their own roots, to discover a heritage to make them proud..."
My husband Dee is a gardener who digs for roots on family trees. He plows through crumbling letters, diaries written in fading pencil, disintegrating scrapbooks, and boxes from under somebody's bed. He interviews grandfathers, uncles and second-cousins searching for specifics to illuminate the life-style and character of a family.
The roots he's excavating now are in Poland. Armed with names, dates and locations we're leaving this week to gather history in the Malopolska region near Cracow, close to Ukraine and Slovakia. I've studied a lot of maps and learned some new geography while preparing for this trip. It's a part of Europe we're totally unfamiliar with, and the language is a complete mystery, but we've got our shovels and we're ready to dig.
We're also doing some research in France. It's funny: this week I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up. Forty years ago I went to the grand opening of a shopping mall that is now being demolished and rebuilt because it's so old. Yet we fully expect to find and photograph a tiny bakery established in France over two hundred years ago. A farmhouse in Poland may have survived the Communists and two world wars--we're hoping, anyway.
Although we've burrowed around other family trees, we haven't done much digging on our own roots. (A paying client takes precedence.) But as I get older I feel a yearning to know my history. Referring to someone famous, a reporter said, "He's from an old family," as if the rest of us just popped up from nowhere in recent generations. We each descend from "an old family" with heroines, rogues, villains and champions, and tales of tragedy and valor that could encourage us.
Dee has noticed that every family has a self-appointed historian with a passion for keeping the records and photographs. Alex Haley discovered oral historians called griots in Africa. He said, "They are men trained from boyhood to memorize, preserve and recite the centuries-old histories of villages, clans, families, and heroes. Some are keepers of family stories so long that they can talk for three days without ever repeating themselves."
Who is your family's griot? Do you know who to call for information about your ancestors? Have you written something for your kids and grandkids? Where are the photos of your grandparents? Which family legend intrigues you?
The last sentence in the Old Testament talks about the Roots phenomenon. In Malachi 4:6 it says, "And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers..."
Has your heart been turned toward your roots?