This feels like starting in the middle of a book.
I’ve been dancing around this idea of roots (specifically mine) for years now, but like a super dormant plant, it would force it’s way up out of the soil from time to time – and when I didn’t feed and water it, would just go quietly back to sleep. It’s only now that I’ve invested the time to go at it full throttle. It began with an old photo that burrowed it’s way into my brain the summer before my senior year in college. I’d been to a family reunion in Indianola, Iowa, the hometown of my dad and his sibs and came home with a copy of this b&w photo of my great-grandfather, Patrick Farrelly.
I was an art major and decided I’d paint this guy. I was also seriously lost and drifting and disconnected from any real sense of who I was, where I came from or where I was going. Maybe that’s what attracted me – here was this old man whose DNA I shared. Who was he? Who was I?
So time passed, life happened, some very hard times and many good times. But I kept going back to those questions, and could never really let them rest. Now, as I get older I realize that those things: questions, ideas, longings – which take up permanent residence in our heads – need to be listened to and acted on. Call it a compulsion or call it a calling, they are there for a reason. I’ve stopped using the word “compulsion” because of the negative association and decided it’s a calling – which gives it a better light to grow under. Calling seems right, even if I don’t completely understand the why of it.
American society more then most, is increasingly rootless – we’ve allowed marketing to dictate what has value, and let it usurp the dynamic mix of family history and individual creativity that builds a healthy society. That’s a generalization of course, but it’s a large part of the reason that the recent broadcasts of NBC’s Ancestry.com’s sponsored “Who Do You Think You Are” and PBS’ Henry Louis Gates’ “Faces of America” have had such resonance with people. There’s a common sense that something’s been lost.
In Chicago’s Newberry Library, in 1996, I reached into the past and it hollered back at me. It was one of those moments you don’t forget. I don’t know what I expected, but when I sat at a micro-film machine in a dark room for the first time (thankfully this is all online now, but it wasn’t back then) and saw the handwritten names, Patrick and Bridget Farley, on an 1880 census record I jumped. They were really there. They were real – and somehow I felt more real, too.