I envy people who know their family histories going way back—or at least, “way back” by American standards, which essentially means 18th century. (Was there life before 1776?) My first husband’s family, for example, had deep roots in New England. He was named for an ancestor who was prominent during the American Revolution.
I’m reading a memoir by a novelist I like, Diane Johnson, who traces her roots to a young Frenchman who emigrated to North America in 1711. He married a Massachusetts girl, giving rise to a family that kept documents, letters and personal memoirs over the course of 300 years. That’s fortunate for Johnson, who writes about them all in “Flyover Lives.”
Her ancestors tell stories of extreme hardship—unheated shacks, ceaseless toil and frightful illnesses. What is “bilious fever”? It’s no longer a medical diagnosis but was a killer back then.
A great-great grandmother writing in 1876 described the deaths of her three little daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, in a matter of weeks from scarlet fever. Her husband was a doctor, but there was little a medical man could do at the time. The couple later lost four more children. One survived to adulthood.
There’s no way on earth to trace my family that far back, for everyone on both sides was still in Europe in 1711, no doubt leading unremarkable lives. Maybe municipal or church records exist somewhere (baptisms? land transfers?), but there’s no way to find them. I don’t even know all the names.
I’m Polish on my father’s side, Italian on my mother’s. My Polish grandmother claimed to be from an aristocratic family, yet she came to America on her own at the age of 14 in the early 1900s. Would a girl from a noble household flee all alone like that? More likely this is an example of something a French friend of Diane Johnson’s teased her about—the fact that “all Americans believe they are descended from royalty.”
I don’t know this grandmother’s maiden name, date of birth or town of origin. Heck, even my grandfather’s name is a mystery, though it’s now mine. The name has morphed over the years from the Polish form, no doubt laden with interesting accent marks, to what it is today, shedding consonants along the way.
On the Italian side, my grandmother was a babe in arms when her parents sailed by steerage to America somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. Grandma knew little of their lives in Italy, save for their areas of origin (Naples for her father, northern Italy for her mother). My grandfather, by contrast, was a young adult when he emigrated from a town called Cave, now a part of Rome, seeking economic opportunity. He’s the only one whose family ties might be traceable.
The question of who we are and where we come from is a mystery with many layers. DNA analysis adds a new wrinkle, introducing unknown ancestors from unexpected places. Still, it might be fun to try it.