As a child, my favorite pastime was flipping through the photo albums on my grandparents’ coffee table. I built a timeline of myself, stretching back farther than I could remember. This is me as a baby, this is me at a wedding I was too young to remember attending, this is when my cousin was born, here are the two of us on the beach. Soon, I started stretching it to before I existed. I found my mom as a teenager, my grandparents on their honeymoon, their parents holding them as babies. Ancestry.com has been a natural hobby. It also helps prove to me that I exist.
The first time I got on the site I traced my mom’s family back to the 1600s. It was easy. I already knew a lot of pertinent names and details that made finding records easy, and luckily I came from a family that had records kept of them. They came from Scotland and Germany and England and the Netherlands. They left diaries and accounts of surgeries. There is a photograph where I look exactly like my great-grandmother, and I mean exactly, down to our dark eye circles. Literally, it me.
There is this prevalent idea, one that sites like Ancestry.com promote, that by knowing our personal histories we can move forward with a clearer picture of ourselves. Our story is made richer by the context of our lineage, the argument goes, and in fact we are not quite real until we have it. In one advertisement a man says he grew up believing he was of German descent, and through the site found out he was Scottish. Thanks to Ancestry.com, he abandoned his German dance club and bought a kilt. The argument is now he knows the truth. Now he is real. (That identity can be so quickly traded for white people is a whole other issue.)
But there are holes I can’t fill, both in the whos and the whys. Aside from the dead ends and misspelled names and the 100 different Benjamin Johnsons born in 1700-something that I could possibly be related to, there’s the fact that I don’t actually know these people. I don’t know what inspired those Dutch ancestors to move from Brooklyn to New Jersey, or what made them come to America in the first place. I don’t know what combination of pro-slavery and pro-Virginia feelings made my great-great-grandfather turn against the Union. I don’t know why any of them fell in love, or if they even did before they got married.
There’s a myth about atheists, perpetuated often both by atheists and by those of faith, that all atheists are just secretly pining for a sense of spiritual belonging. They are jealous of the camaraderie and community they see in religion, and that’s why they a) will find religion eventually, b) start things like “atheist churches,” or c) yell at people on the internet. I do not feel I am lacking by not having a spiritual structure for my life. What I am in search of is something tangible. A list of names and dates and places that prove I am here and I am me.
I’ve always had a lot of anxiety about place. I like to have a plan. I like to know where I am and where I’m going. Second to photos, I pored over my mom’s giant atlas, placing fingers where I was born, where mom and dad were born, where they went to college, and how far it was from where I am now. If the schedule I’ve built for myself in my head gets disrupted, I panic, whether it’s because of losing a job or because the laundry needs to get done tomorrow instead of today.
I think it’s because, on some level, I know that all of this is chaos. That if my parents hadn’t gone to the same college, if their parents hadn’t both settled in New Jersey, that if hundreds of people hadn’t moved from their respective countries to right around here, I wouldn’t exist. It is awesome and terrifying. It inspires me and cripples me. And I don’t want to think the chaos is really divine. I just want to pin it down for a second.
It’s easy to get caught up in the terror of coincidence. At a certain point, the people in the tree need to stop being family. I’ve never met them, I’ve never loved them. And really, they do not give me a clearer picture of myself. Finding out somebody 200 years ago was from Germany instead of France doesn’t help me figure out what to do with my life. I am not more whole because I know the name of the town my 6th-great grandfather lived in. Nothing about me can be found there. It’s just a collection, but instead of stamps and thimbles, it’s people with whom I share diminishing amounts of DNA.
They could do me a favor and not all be named David, though.