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Family Tree

A child carries forward more than your genes. Pat Albertson thinks a child is only the latest member of a long family line.

I can still remember the day Janet and I found out that we were going to be parents for the first time. There was all the usual emotions and feelings that you have come to expect.

You know the ones I am talking about: joy at the thought of all your rose-tinted dreams of parenthood will now be fulfilled, fear of the unknown, curiosity as to whether “it” will be a boy or a girl, and all the others that have formed the basis for dozens of romantic comedies down through the years.

However, there was at least one feeling that I had not expected; one that I still have difficulty naming. It was like the passing on of a baton in a relay race, a passing on of myself to the next generation.

It was around this time that I first started to wonder what it was of myself and Janet that we were passing on. When it comes to answering the inevitable “ethnicity” question on any government forms, I always have to stop and have a think what I am going to say.

The answer that springs to mind is invariably “New Zealander” and, while that may not be much help to the government statistician paid to analyse such data, that is the most accurate description of what I am.

I guess therefore, the same description would have to apply to my kids; the English, Irish, Scottish, Maori and Danish ancestry they have inherited from Janet and myself is something that is uniquely theirs, and all those who have come before them are a part of who they are, and who they will become as they grow and change.

Now here in the so-called “western world” we pride ourselves on having everything committed to print, or stored on a hard drive somewhere. Oral traditions and verbal agreements are discarded in favour of the written word(as they say, “a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on”!).

But hold on a minute now; the written language in this fair land is less than two hundred years old, so what happened before that time?

Okay, the writing has been around in the “mother country” for a little while longer, but what exactly has been written down, and what was never committed to print? Quite often it may only be a list of names and dates, and you may be lucky to have even that much. However, is that really the sum total of all who have gone before me? After all, these are real people we are talking about here.

I can remember, when I was younger, Dad telling me about his grandfather being marooned on some island somewhere down in the Sub-Antarctic Islands.

At the time it was, “Yeah Dad, whatever”, because after all, who really listens to that kind of thing when you are eighteen years old, and more interested in what is on the social calendar for next weekend, and whether I can afford to buy the new Iron Maiden album now, or will I have to wait ’til my next pay comes through. After all, parents are always going on about the old days, and what does it matter anyway?

Now that it is my turn to be the dad, I have finally realised that it matters a whole lot. In some cultures where written language is held of secondary importance, there are people whose primary function in life is to receive, store and pass on oral histories and traditions.

“Roots” author Alex Haley came to realise that, “… every living person ancestrally goes back to some time and some place where no writing existed; and then human memories and mouths and ears were the only ways those human beings could store and relay information.

They said that we who live in the Western culture are so conditioned to the ‘crutch of print’ that few among us comprehend what a trained memory is capable of”.

Reading Alex Haley’s book, starting a family of my own and the gradual realisation of my own parents’ mortality have had a profound effect on me in terms of my responsibilities in passing on to my children a knowledge of those who have come before them so that they can have a better understanding who they themselves are.

I am not alone in wanting to discover a sense of place and identity for my family and myself. Genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies in New Zealand. Family tree making has become a million-dollar industry in this country and overseas.

Now, young children seem to live an eternal present and, by the time they are old enough to start wondering who they are and where they fit in the world, their grandparents will have long since departed this world.

If my kids are going to have more than just hazy childhood memories and a list of names and dates taken from birth, death and marriage certificates, it is my responsibility to gather and store that information now.

In doing so, I have come to appreciate as never before the connections between myself, my parents, and their parents before them. There were so many treasures to share.

I asked Mum to tell me her life story, and after an hour she had still not got to the point where she was born! At times when my parents have shared their stories with me, I was able to see them as, not just ‘the old folks’ but as real people who had lived real lives. Their experiences have not only shaped me but will continue to be a part of my own children, and their children in turn, down through the years.

Alex Haley writes that, when one of those in whom the tribal history is entrusted dies, it is as if an entire library has been burned to the ground, unless that history has been passed on to the next generation.

In this way, I believe that we as parents and grandparents have a responsibility to gather and store for when our own children are ready to hear them. Why not make a start now? If you want to write them down, that is fine. If committing them to memory feels better, then that is great too.

Just don’t wait too long; the time may be short, and the rewards are too precious to miss out on.

Next: Dreamtime

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