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A Genealogical Inquiry into Human Misery

by on July 17, 2011 9:13 AM

I'm missing a family reunion this weekend. As the unofficial clan genealogist, my absence is unusual and upsetting, if not for my relatives – tired, perhaps, of timelines, charts and endless stories about German churches, sea voyages, Hessian prisoners-of-war, Civil War soldiers and 19th-century Pennsylvania farming practices – certainly for me.

But I just couldn't be there. I'm here. I'm trying to write, trying to edit, trying to ease the burden of an overworked colleague, trying to haul the last load of books, papers, files and accumulated who-knows-what out of storage – all with limited success.

I am not in the midst my most productive period. But I'm plodding along the best I can, thank you.

Which brings me back to genealogy, as almost everything does, these days. I am more focused on the past than the present, and much more so than on the future. I'm not sure why. Longing? Escape? Discontent? Avoidance?

On a recent weekend, when I should have been more help to the aforementioned colleague, I chanced to post a genealogical query on an online social network. I was mildly rebuked – at least I think it was a rebuke, and I hope it was mild – by the lone responder: It is nice that I have leisure for such queries.

What is leisure? What is work? What am I doing here when I should be out reporting on something or could be with folks who share my heritage, some of whom I see only once a year?

I get paid to write and edit, of course, and the expectation is that I do it better and with more vigor and stamina than I am now. And if I don't get my junk out of the storage area – Today! – the penalty will be more severe than my guilty conscience.

And so I will. But I may be missing the most important thing in life while doing so.

One good thing about being a columnist is that, what in other circumstances might be considered wallowing in self-pity, is here an examination of the human condition, the human spirit, my woeful existence. Sorry, there I go again.

Genealogy, for me, is an extension of that examination. Who I am depends on who my ancestors where – how they lived, what they considered important, what they passed on to succeeding generations.

What I will pass on will be 13 pickup loads of books, papers and the detritus of a struggling writer's life.

And as much of the history of my extended family as I can uncover in the time I have been allotted.

Leisure? More of an all-consuming obsession, I think.

But not today. Today, I have to carry more boxes, more books, from one storage room to another.

All the while, asking myself, "Why?"

Rich Kerstetter is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter at or get news updates via Facebook at Rich can be reached at [email protected] or at (814) 238-6201 Ext. 135.
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