Cézanne, or maybe it was de Kooning, said a painting is never really finished, just abandoned at a more or less appropriate time.  So it is for my efforts to gather back in a handful of the people and stories of our family. The rest of my life is calling, and I’ve got to go. A few words though, both philosophical and practical, to wrap it all up.
First the philosophical.
Since I started this project, since I began trying to track this material down and pass it on, I’ve had encounters with numerous family members who were extraordinarily and unquestioningly supportive. I’ve gotten a lesser number of reactions that were in the category of what I will simply call benign puzzlement, a sort of harmless shoulder shrug—and a very few that seemed dismissive, or even openly hostile.
Statistically that seems about right. I have no complaints about any of that. Some people “get it.” Some don’t. Par for the course. But this variety of “greetings” my efforts have received has caused me to reevaluate why I felt the urgency of taking it all on in the first place.
I’ve discovered, after considerable introspection, that my motivation—as is often the case—was actually a layered thing. Layered less like an onion. More like an old stone wall.
At the very surface, there was curiosity, the impulse to discover hidden knowledge. The hermetic truth. That which had been known, and also forgotten.
Just below that, the desire to put order on what had become disordered. There’s a sort of OCD quality to much of this work that I try to be aware of and hold at arm’s length—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Below that, if not slightly to the side, lay a passionate interest in the psychological threads that combine to form the weave of a family’s—our family’s—emotional tapestry. The roots of a host of attitudes and approaches and temperaments, on full display (if you know how to spot them) at any holiday party, or wedding, or reunion.
There was, admittedly, the aim of bringing the achievements of a famous few to the attention of a new generation. Of far greater importance, though, was the need to restore the memory of many more un-famous people who lived obscure but deeply instructive, worthy, sometimes wonderful lives. I experienced, at times, the sensation of visiting a cemetery with a pair of clippers and a rake; of cutting back the overgrown grass around a tombstone and planting a bright perennial at its base. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, there is both a sense of satisfaction, and of justice, in seeing that a person’s “grave is kept clean.”
Then there was the illusion, the powerful illusion—which I am sure most of my fellow researchers feel or at least have felt—of time travel. Letting one’s imagination off-leash, there are moments when this work conjures vivid impressions of actually reliving certain time periods; of being back in a given era, watching the simple events of life in a world removed from ours unfold. To see an ancestor’s signature on a document, or better, to hold a letter that was written two hundred years ago, or trace one’s hand along the arm of an old Windsor chair, smoothed and subtly distorted by a thousand touches from a hundred hands—for me, it’s as though I am there. There are times I have almost been able to hear the quiet conversation of a living room in the evening, or the clamor of a crowded city street. I find the experience addictive.
Lastly, at the core of the whole enterprise, there is this: I believe meaning is going out of the world. This idea is an essay in itself, if not a book, and I won’t belabor it here. But I am convinced with all my being that humans need meaning, and with each passing day, in our globalized culture of cable TV, strip malls, Christmas sales in September, robotic nursing home aides, and drive-thru funeral homes, meaning, and the bonds of connection and belonging that support it, is becoming harder and harder to find. What’s more, its loss causes us suffering.
One aspect, or component, of meaning, whether you come from 21st century Manhattan or a village on a tributary of the Amazon, is knowing the history of your people. Now, all the great spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of the present, of paying attention in this-very-moment, and teach that failing to grapple with the here-and-now is on some crucial level a failure to truly live. But there is another way to fail, too. That is to forget the past; to do nothing to help others to remember the past, to neglect to tell the tales that on some gut level we know need to be told or we will be the poorer for it. I want my children to live their own lives, free to find their own choices and make their own mistakes. But I also want them to know where they came from, and have at least an inkling of the multitude of full, complete lives, no less real than their own, that went before them.
I want them to understand that, in this moment of youth, and health, and possibility, they are not unlike drops of salt water catching the sun, on the folding crest of a single whitecap, rolling across a vast, deep, old and faceless ocean.
Now the practical.
There are mistakes here. I know that. I’ve done my best to eliminate them, but if there is one promise I can make, it is that not everything here happened the way I have set it down.
Mistakes creep in, in all sorts of ways.
Transcription error is a huge one, as is taking for gospel the work of other researchers. Material in old books varies widely in quality. Where less-well-documented families are concerned you have no idea what you’re getting. A family member writes to an author who’s doing a genealogy. That author gets a few things mixed up. Those few things get put in a book. A hundred years later, they’ve become time-honored truth.
Some deviations from the truth are at least semi-intentional. For example, a paid researcher, working at the behest of a Victorian family interested in finding the royal underpinnings they are certain exist, bends and massages and optimistically reinterprets the available evidence for his patrons in order to create a more socially advantageous history. [Would never happen, right?]
In the future, I believe the waters of research will become considerably muddier as these distortions are compiled and re-compiled, especially through the sharing of gedcoms [genealogical information stored in a unique computerized format]. The Web forgets nothing, including inaccurate information.
The moral to all this is: take everything with a grain of salt. Caveat emptor. If and when you can correct the record, do.
What else? If I were to say one other thing, it would be, “Visit the NEHGS.” The people there are the Talmudic scholars of Yankee history. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
And then? Find an ancestor who piques your interest, someone you wish you knew more about. Learn whatever you can in the time you have, and—don’t wait!—tell someone you love.
begun in Monkton, Maryland, 1997
abandoned in Monkton, Vermont, 2017
 It may actually have been Paul Valery speaking about a poem.