Time slides away too quickly. Before we know it, many of the relatives who once adorned our childhood have vanished. I have spoken to any number of people for whom regret hangs in the mind like like an unfinished painting. “If only…” echoes in the hollow chambers of memory. “If only I had asked those questions…” “If only I hadn’t been so busy with my own life…” or the sad refrain, “If only I had made an effort to heal the rift…”
As a reminder of lost opportunities we are left with a collection of objects – books, letters, scraps of paper tenderly folded and disintegrating, photos, bits of wood, metal, jewellery and fabric, the paraphernalia of the past with meaning only to ourselves and if we are lucky, our children and grandchildren.
Family trees are an antidote to amnesia. They constitute a record of names and relationships, a who’s who of our personal past, as varied in form as the trees of the natural world. Some are merely dry lists of names and dates, hooked into each other along branches which rise vertically into the mists of antiquity and extend horizontally into remote corners of the world. Others are portraits in colour, fleshed out with emotive details – stories of hardship, escapes from danger, tragic mishaps, fortunes made or lost, illnesses and disabilities – the gamut of our experiences at the mercy of capricious fate.
As a Jew I can’t help feeling ambivalent about the exercise of tracing my family tree. True to the meaning of the word ‘diaspora’, my relatives are scattered throughout the world. Some seeds took root in Israel, others were blown further afield, to Australia, Sweden and the United States. My parents were born in Lithuania. I was born and raised in South Africa and my children now live in the United Kingdom, where I have made my own home.
But that recital of countries lived in scarcely nourishes the family tree. No Jewish family history can be documented without coming up against the Holocaust and the persecutions which anticipated and surrounded it, blighting the lives of the survivors and their families up to the present day.
That is one reason why I am ambivalent about constructing a family tree. I have no wish to probe the wounds associated with memories which an investigation into the names and lives of the dead would uncover. Another reason is the more mundane one of not wanting to remind myself of the ups and downs of family life, the unions and partings, good and bad, the losses, trials and travails which form part of every family’s mythology.
On the positive side, I want to know and record facts which might otherwise sink without a trace. Some of the fruit which hangs from the branches of the family tree tastes well – names of relatives whose memory conjures up images of warmth, kindness, generosity and talent. I want them to be remembered too. Pain and pleasure sit alongside each other.
As a family therapist, I have often worked with families who preferred to look the other way when enquiries were made into their past, and I respected that. On the other hand, the families who responded positively to an invitation to talk about absent relatives were often rewarded by a sense of relief when the silence was broken.
The technique of constructing a family tree in dialogue with the family (building a genogram, to give it its technical name) allows family members to pool their knowledge of relatives past and present. They are able to fill in gaps and reflect on how the memory of certain relatives has come to influence assumptions made about those in the room. Helping the family to resolve a blocked mourning process is one aspect of the therapy helped by an exploration of the family tree.
The contribution of children to the dialogue is key to the success of the exercise. Prompted by the therapist, children often ask questions of their parents which generate liberating conversations about family members seldom or never mentioned. Ghosts are laid to rest and false beliefs are dismantled.
Therapy aside, family trees provide an interesting historical record. There are many definitions of history. One that has particular appeal for me is that of the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who baldly stated, ‘There is properly no history, only biography’. Family trees are, to put it simply, a compilation of mini-biographies, stories of ordinary folk knitted together by means of a common thread into a pattern which makes up the family history.
Each entry starts with a name, but sometimes even that basic information is missing. Who did so-and-so marry? What were the names of their children? There are plenty of challenges for the family sleuth in this ongoing task.
A word of caution to the would-be researcher: pursuit of the family tree can sometimes deliver unpleasant surprises. Who would have guessed that a pious and righteous family had once harboured a wastrel or criminal in their midst? Or that that a child had been abandoned by a selfish father? Or that a marriage with a person from another faith had resulted in estrangement and consignment to oblivion? Or that a family following one political persuasion had felt betrayed by one of its members who had chosen a different path? The list is endless and is often held in a compartment of the collective mind reserved for family secrets.
There is a view that the cultivation of family trees is a waste of time and that there are better things to do with one’s life than mine the past for details of long-forgotten or obscure family members. I disagree. A name, a date, a place or an event with which we have a personal connection tells us something about who we are. Moreover, the past has a habit of sneaking up on us and taking us by surprise. Knowing about the people who have shared our past, our roots and our group identity equips us better to deal with whatever life throws at us in the present. As the Spanish American philosopher Santayana put it, rather more elegantly, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’