Studying my family tree has become a bit of an obsession. Does this mean I am getting old? My kids are not particularly interested in finding out what great-grandfather did in the war. Nor are my friends, I’m sure. Yet, there is such a fascination in thinking about those long-lost lives that I am genetically part of. I stare at the photo of my grandmother as a young woman and wonder who she really was. How did she think? What were her loves, her hates, her interests? What were her moods? How did she talk? Was she argumentative or passive? I hardly remember her, as she died when I was a small child, but her picture hangs above my desk and I often talk to her. Weird? Maybe. But haven’t cultures worshipped ancestors since the dawn of time? And what about the sudden interest in archeology? British TV is full of serious people digging up old bones and trying to fathom out who they were and even how they looked with the help of computer generated images and clever artists. And then there are the websites dedicated to helping you find your past. Millions subscribe to these.
There has always been nostalgia about our history. We like to see events throughrose-tinted spectacles. It feels more comfortable to believe that Great Aunt Maud was a bit of an eccentric and not admit she was a spiteful and vindictive old bat. I have been to funerals where I knew that the dead person was a nasty piece of work, but the eulogies painted a very different story.
As I child I used to believe that I would meet all the dead members of my family in some heavenly sitting-room, where we would all embrace and talk about ‘the old times’. This view was based on my Catholic upbringing and my convent education. I had no doubts at all that there was life afterdeath until I reached the age of fifteen, when I started to ask some really difficult questions. Now I am older and thinking about my own demise, I have suddenly started to consider that the sitting room in the sky might be quite a good idea…
Then I look at photos of me as a baby. It that really me? Yes, it is, according to my family. But it could be anyone. I have no memory of the photo being taken; no memory of how that shawl so tightly swaddling me, felt. A therapist might say that is the cause of my phobia about bed sheets that are tucked in too tightly. That baby in the photo has no connection with me, other than what I am told by my family. Time is such a mystery.
We must never dismiss those who have lived and are now dead. They had lives full of small moments; breath and hunger and fear and joy. They could see and hear and remember. They looked forward and felt love and pain. And they must be remembered. When humans are treated like inhuman objects that do not live life made up of small moments, annihilation becomes easier. They simply do not really exist in the mind of the dictator. That is why bombs can be dropped on land seen from the gun-sight of a fighter plane; land that looks empty but is in fact full of living moments; full of real people. That is why political leaders can have a ‘plan’ to exterminate thousands of innocent people; because they are not seen as beings that live in small moments – they are just a mass of nothingness, like empty land. On the other hand, suicide bombers are often motivated not just by religious fanaticism , but by the memory of members of their family killed in conflict. Could it be that they remember the small moments and can only deal with their loss by passing on the mayhem and murder? Whatever the causes, war and terrorism are never the answer to political conflict.
To me, this interest in our past is a healthy sign that times are changing. Could it be that the human race is starting to feel some hope that we can see each other as lives lived and not as one-dimensional frozen cut-outs that can be dismissed and killed in futile wars? Will it be that in future, we will not engage in war just for ideology or economics, but because we abhor the fact that people living everyday-small-moments that make up their life, will lose their life?
Grandma stares down at me, her whole life ahead of her and at the moment that photo was taken, she didn’t know what I know now; that she would live until she is 79 and be buried in a cemetery in London, far away from her birth place in the north of Italy. Looking at my grandmother as a young woman and thinking about her life and its content, the children she loved and nurtured, the people she talked to, the food she ate and the things she achieved, all of this makes her important and valued. The fact that she is part of a genetic chain that lives on in me is a miracle.