It was a quiet morning in the spring of 2020. Yes, the year that we would all remember as the black swan of the twentieth century. A novel virus which was initially discovered in late 2019 in China had spread itself across the world, and we were in the middle of the most massive quarantine around the world. What it meant was that our small family of three was stuck indoors in our rented Bay Area house – as we , along with the entire world navigated on how to weather this unprecedented healthcare crisis.
The County where we lived had declared a shelter in place for all its residents, which meant that all non essential businesses were ordered to close, and residents were advised to go out only for essential chores like groceries or any emergencies. The ordinance had been in place for almost 2 months now and we had invisibly adapted to this mode of life. Weekdays and weekends blended into a flatline, and we started coming up with inventive ways to occupy our time.
And this was the start of our Family Tree Project.
Reminded of a first grade school assignment from long ago, we started working on this project of building my daughter’s family tree – picking up the abandoned pieces and data points from where we had last left off. Fueled by reignited curiosity and with ample time to kill, we began tracing out the leaves that chalk my daughter’s bloodline. We commenced with my family, tracing up to my ancestors , including my grandparents and then their parents. After a point, I could not recollect the names, so we called up my father to get them. He jogged his memory and gave me some, but soon after memory also gave up. He did not know the name of ancestors on his father’s side – including his father’s mother. She had died many years ago and no one had ever asked him her name his entire lifetime !
The story on my husband’s side was harder to fill up – we joked as he struggled to remember the formal names of some of his uncles and aunts ( yes, we Indians affectionately use pet names like Chintoo Mama or Chikoo Chacha all our lives ) . So then again we had to call my father in law, and he made a few more calls to fill the rest of the picture. Slowly the nodes started lighting up with long lost names, and for the first time in my life, I could see an emerging vignette of the many people who constituted my extended family. Indian families are indeed large ones, so after a certain point we had more than a hundred names on the page, still missing many more – which would need a more sophisticated method to catalogue and fill up.
It was this exercise of writing down the names of my ancestors that led to two consequences.
One is the realization of our own mortality in the backdrop of the raging pandemic around the world. The other one is the cognizance of how little I knew of my ancestors. For one, there were many I didn’t even know the names of , and others whose lives could not be summarized by me in more than a paragraph.
Yet these were real people who lived their whole lives with such rich experiences , gave birth to and bred wonderful children and with some combination of their DNA which fuels my existence. Many components of the way I think , how my body reacts to its environment, the processes that keep it alive have been learnt from this heritage passed on through Genetics.
It also made me realize that sometimes we are so much focused on the future that we fail to look back and make sense of our past.
Our Family Tree Project – undertaken without much forethought at the start left me with some quiet yet deep wisdom. Your history and past is written down indestructibly in time but it is a story that you will always have. It is something to own. And it is a story worth knowing more about!