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Family Trees

I have received another family tree from a scholar in Rome. It isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last. Someone Googles me, finds something I’ve written, finds out that my father had a valuable art collection (Egon Schiele), decides to be helpful, or cannot resist sharing years of meticulous research. This person may or may not be a relative though usually they claim that they are. I need only study the tree, they suggest, to find us both on a branch connected by squiggly or straight lines.

I should be interested but I’m not. I glaze over and barely look at the carefully researched trees. I usually send a thank you note and that’s it. Maybe some day, I tell myself, when I am writing one thing or another, I’ll be able to make use of that tree. I do save them, or gmail does. And if the historian/researcher turns up in New York, I graciously suggest that we meet for a coffee.

Most people adore genealogy—there are websites and TV programs devoted to it. So why don’t I care? Or, put another way, why do I shut down?

It has to do with ghosts. And having just finished Erik Larson’s masterpiece, “Dead Wake,” about the last Atlantic crossing of the Lusitania in 1915 before it was torpedoed by a German u-boat in the Irish Sea, I am even closer to an explanation. After that ship went down, killing more than 1,000 people, one of the survivors described a vision of his heavily pregnant mother giving birth in the water. That was the last he saw of her; he was haunted by the vision for the rest of his life.

I feel the same way when I glance at a family tree, especially as it nears the 20th century. Most of the people on that tree—on both sides of my family—were murdered. I never knew them, I could not save them, they are, simply, gone. Their names on a piece of paper, no matter how accurate or well drawn, will never bring them back to me.

Now I can say to myself, as I often do, that the unsolicited gift of a family tree has brought a new person into my life—perhaps a relative, perhaps not—who I did not know existed before. And that’s a good thing, for which I am grateful.
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