I've never had any particular yearning to trace my ancestors. Who do I think I am? Well, I reckon I more or less know that, and finding out that my great-great-grandfather was a hero or a villain does not tell me anything about myself. Nor does having colourful forebears make me a more interesting person. Children are not their parents and much less so their great-great-grandparents; genetic effects are weakened over the generations and cultural ones often lost entirely. Blood is not always thicker than water.
Read that as a preamble to what follows. This month I went to a family reunion in a remote corner of North Wales. An aunt had phoned to tell me that the Jones family (ok, there are a few of those in Wales, but this was my particular Jones family - relatives on my paternal side) was getting together on a Friday night in September and would I like to join them? It was likely to be quite a gathering, I was warned.
There were a few people I rather wanted to see and had not seen for a long time, and any chance to visit this wild and beautiful but resolutely ordinary part of Wales was always welcome. There would also be a lot of people I would not know, might feel no particular connection to and who might not be much interested in me. I wasn't totally convinced by this family thing, but, well, I was mildly curious.
Friday arrived. Gathered in the large backroom of a coastal pub were the descendants of Elizeus Jones (1840-1900) and his wife Ellen Jones (1850-1928), several dozen of them, myself included. We were of various generations and all ages and, apart from a few in-laws and other hangers-on, we were all related. Stories and ancient photos were shared; printouts from ancestry websites were handed round; someone had made quite a good stab at the family tree. There were those who died young and those who died old, favourite relatives and decidedly eccentric ones.
Ellen, mater familias, was, by all accounts a remarkable, multi-tasking woman - as women of her class and time so often had to be. She co-farmed with her husband, kept a shop, had 12 or 13 (some dispute about the exact number) children. The fact that her childbearing was spread over 20 years and that her children themselves procreated between the ages of 20 and 50+ means that some lines of the family squeezed in three or even four generations while others managed only two. I have cousins and second cousins old enough to be my parent and others young enough to be my child. The mathematical patterns of families are fascinating.
Ancestor-tracing has of course become hugely popular over the past decade or more. The television series Who Do You Think You Are? has contributed to that, and the internet makes it all rather easy: there are any number of websites offering to trace your roots, create your family tree, search census records, find birth, marriage and death certificates. The appeal is obvious. In a world of migration and flux, knowing who your ancestors are seems to offer connection and certainty. In fact, though, the Welsh and particularly the North Welsh seem not to have created such a diaspora as many other ethnic groups - certainly my family's dispersal bears no comparison to that of my Jewish husband. Quite a few of the cousins and second cousins still live in the area where their great - or great-great - grandparents lived, in one case on the very same farm. And Welsh was still the dominant language on that Friday night in the pub - although the ease with which my bilingual relatives move from one language to another to accommodate monoglots like me is impressive. (I tried to pick up something of my father's language, but never really succeeded.)
Of course, what this is really all about - like most of history, as my about-to-be-history-undergraduate son reminds me - is stories. Tracing family history always throws up stories because people make stories. It doesn't really matter that these people are related to you - I still maintain that - but mining your own family for stories is as good an option as any. Everyone had stories to tell of their grandparents and their connection to Elizeus and Ellen. I scanned faces for traces of a genetic connection while they told them. There was perhaps some, although I imagined a good deal more. It didn't really matter. I enjoyed the stories.