Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Genealogy and Genetics

I’ve just finished this book, The Juggler’s Children.  It has certainly got the genealogist in me stirred up, wanting to get researching once again.  The book gets its name from the author’s pursuit of information on her paternal great-grandfather, apparently a Chinese juggler.  Although this one man gets her started, she also ends up pursuing family ties in India, England and Jamaica as well.  Once research gets rolling, it can literally lead you anywhere—how much more exciting does research get?

The author, Carolyn Abraham, is a science writer who details her experience into personal genetic research combined with old fashioned interviewing of family and potential family as well as searching the paper and ink records.  One of my friends asked me years ago to participate in National Geographic’s genetic project, but for some reason I was not at all interested at the time.  I may have to re-visit that decision in light of this book.  After all, we have some rumours of North American Indian blood in the family and there is one man in our Danish line of ancestry whose name whispers “Russian” to me.  Perhaps we do have mysteries that we can tango with through DNA.

I was particularly struck by one passage in the book:
“I asked Adrian why he thought so many people—people who might never have spent a minute researching their ancestry—felt suddenly compelled to find genetic relatives.  ‘We’re lonely,’ he said flatly. ‘Families are so fractured, and we’re all caught up in this rat race and in the process we kind of lost our identities.  I’d much rather talk to a cousin I never knew I had than to a complete stranger.  We don’t want to be so lonely anymore.’”
 Shades of Kurt Vonnegut and his book Slapstick, where everyone is to be assigned a middle name: a random natural object and a random number.  Anyone who shares your object is a cousin and anyone who shares the object and number is a sibling.  Thus community is created.  Lonesome no more!

I have spent time tracking down distant cousins.  I have cold-called complete strangers with the “right” surname in ancestral areas.  I remember having tea and muffins in Moncton with a very lonely elderly woman, who gratefully shared all the family information that she knew in exchange for an afternoon visit.  I’ve prowled cemeteries in New Brunswick with various shirt-tail relatives, looking for the gravestone of a missing great-grandfather (we found it because a distant cousin was dating the grounds keeper of the cemetery and he consulted the plot plan for us).  En route to another cemetery, I was assured by a many-times-distant cousin that “the land owner knows my car and so he won’t shoot.”  I’ve been given privileged access in an archive on the say-so of a distant cousin.  The bond forms quickly.

Genealogy is addictive—it is mysterious, as you use family legends as a starting point to discover the paper trail.  You are always open to hearing another family story and following up any clues you may divine from it.  You plan your vacations around visits to archives, libraries and burial grounds.  Facts are assembled, compared, analyzed, all in an attempt to figure out where to look next.  And the stories are fascinating.  The people, by and large, are warm and welcoming.  We really do like to talk to “cousins we never knew we had.”  It’s fun to share stories and figure where the intersections are and if we are very similar or quite different and yet still Family.

The other things that strikes me about this genetic research is the extent to which we all share genetic material.  No one is “pure” anything.  It truly proves that racism is just chasing your own tail—completely pointless.  I read in one genealogy text that if you go back 30 generations, we should each have millions of ancestors.  But there weren’t that many people in all of Europe back then, so if you have European ancestors, you are not only related to royalty, but you are also connected to every swineherd.
The genetic tests are not miracles—they may just open certain research avenues and discourage us from others.  But I think I may have to venture into this new game and see where my DNA takes me. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?

On Saturday night, I attended a performance of R&J, put on through Shakespeare in the Park and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Reading any play is nothing like seeing it performed and I would recommend going to a play to enhance your understanding of it.  I know many people struggle with the Early Modern English that Shakespeare's plays are written in, but when seen in a good performance, their meaning becomes clear without a word by word dissection.  I think the first Shakespearean play I ever attended was Hamlet while I was in high school (it may even have been performed in French, as part of my studies of that language, my memory is hazy) and I have been entranced by the Bard ever since.  As I listened to the actors last night, I realized how many common phrases from these plays are still heard in speech today.  For instance: Star crossed lovers; What’s in a name?; Parting is such sweet sorrow; a plague on both your houses.  And I had to laugh when I heard a servant invite Romeo to come to the banquet and “crush a cup of wine”—I was put in mind of a London-born friend of mine who frequently says that she could “murder a cup of tea.”
It really struck me during the performance how much this play is about what in the 1960’s was called the Generation Gap.  Many people see only the love story or the tragedy, but it is the difference between old and young that grabbed my attention and held it.  The older folks have forgotten what it is to be young—they have aged and mellowed.  Although the older men don’t fight in the streets any more, the young men simply cannot be restrained from it.  It brought to mind some sociological data that I read claiming that countries with large populations of unemployed young men are much more likely to go to war—their restless young men need something to do.
The play also took me back to the pains of first love—who among us cannot remember the first person that we agonized over, how to speak to them, what to do, how to convey our feelings to them?  And who has not awaited a visit from a new lover with impatience, crying as Juliette does, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds!”  [Although we may have used slightly different phrasing].
I also remembered of the lifespans of people of the Elizabethan age.  Making it to 40 was an accomplishment.  Shakespeare himself only lived to 52 (which, egad, I will be this autumn!).  As Juliette’s parents are quick to point out to the 13 year old girl, many other young women of her age in the city are already mothers.  Life moved quickly in those days.
I attended the play with a female friend and we looked at one another during Juliette’s father’s tirade about doing his will and being married to Paris or being disowned.  I think neither of us before realized how extreme his reaction was, although it was probably realistic for the time.  (On the other hand, I remember similar frustration in my own parents when my youngest sister at 19 insisted on marrying an unsuitable man).  At the play’s end, Friar Lawrence rebukes Capulet’s theatrical mourning, saying, “The most you sought was her promotion, For ‘twas your heaven she should be advanced.”  Children were pawns to improve one’s own life, regardless of their feelings in the matter.  Rather ironic, coming from the friar who is earlier told by Romeo, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.”
It’s easy as an adult to look back on adolescence with condescension, discounting those passionate declarations of love as mere hormones.  The emotions remain real to those experiencing them.  We need to take our young people more seriously, even if we believe, as Friar Lawrence does, that “She’s not well married that lives married long.”
I think that Shakespeare’s great talent was taking stories which were floating about in Elizabethan times and to make great plays out of them.  Having consulted my Riverside Shakespeare tome, I learned that the basics of the R&J story was circulating in several different forms during the 1500s—but whose version of it do we remember?