Sentimental by Proxy

It’s fun to take a “sentimental journey,” revisiting former haunts to see how they have fared. Sometimes the places you love are unchanged, plunging you into a sea of pleasurable nostalgia and bringing a smile to your face. Sometimes they have vanished — a less pleasurable experience, since the disappearance of buildings and streets once familiar, places that seemed permanent at the time, is an uncomfortable reminder of one’s own mortality. Usually what you find falls somewhere in the middle: The once-familiar place is still there, but time has altered it. And you.

They say you can never go home again. I once believed this sad old adage. Then I moved, bracing myself for disappointment, back to a town I had left years before. And found that I fit right back in. I loved it, if anything, more than I did when I first called it “home.” I’ve had this experience twice now, so I’m happy to report that you can, in fact, go home again. Sentimental journeys, however, remain a mixed bag.

Which brings me to my latest interest: Revisiting scenes of lives other than my own. I have an uncomfortable suspicion that there is something unhealthy about family history research. Like the old joke about codependency (“How do you know you’re codependent? You get hit by a bus, and someone else’s life flashes before your eyes”), I now find it fascinating to visit places where I have never lived, and research other people’s lives.

I’m not alone in this obsession–far from it. Even perfectly normal people feel some degree of interest in visiting, say, Ireland. Or wherever one’s family is from. But when you really stop and look at this impulse, it’s a bit odd. The more I study genealogy, the more aware I am that we are all connected. We all come from everywhere. Go back far enough, and it is clear that “the family of Man” is more than a turn of phrase. It’s a description of reality.

So why be more interested in your direct ancestors than you are in their contemporaries? Is there actually some sort of mystical bond … a connection to the land that survives somehow in the blood? Or is it all vanity?

I vote for the mystical bond. I’m a bona fide history buff and actually am interested in people from the past to whom I am not related. All lives are interesting. But there is an extra edge of excitement in learning about an interesting life whose genes you share. You hear their stories in your own voice, and ghosts crowd up behind you to peer over your shoulder as you pore over the microfiche or eagerly scan a ship manifest for long-sought names.

So I take sentimental journeys by proxy, driving past farms long gone and buildings remodeled beyond recognition, strolling from a train station to a house I’ve never lived in, retracing steps taken a century ago by a man who died when I was three. It’s strangely satisfying. I feel their approval, these ghosts who travel beside me, looking through my eyes at places they inhabited once upon a time. They seem to be as interested as I am to see what’s become of their old stomping grounds.

Too bad they can’t return the favor. I can’t look through their eyes and see what used to be there. But hunting down scraps of history is great fun, and I’ve always had a good imagination.

Just wish I could lose the nagging suspicion that it’s seriously weird to be so interested in dead people.

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Me, beastin’ on history at the Santa Cruz museum archives

 

 

 

 

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