Monday, February 25, 2013

Stepping into the Looking Glass: Reflections of ourselves in our family trees

This is a post about questions, rather than answers, but I believe they are questions worthy of contemplation.

In the whole of your life if you never saw an image of yourself, would you wholly know who you are? What would your perceptions of yourself be?

These questions were inspired by a late 19th century image in Aoife O'Connor's book Small Lives, an image in which a group of farm children from Connemara Ireland are pictured (See the photos here: NLI Tuke Collection). The photographer, Major Ruttledge-Fair, showed the children a copy of a photograph in which they appear. While the children pictured could easily point out their friends in the photograph, they did not recognize themselves in the image. Fair accounted for this lack of recognition saying,

"[The children] know each other at once, but not one recognises himself or herself never having seen that same — looking glasses being unknown." (O'Connor 26)

Those of us who are blessed with eyesight are accustomed to the image in the looking glass each morning, even as that image changes over time. Even without mirrors, like Narcissus, at some point we would find a obliging pond which would reflect back a wavy and watery shape which we would recognize as us. Also, for better or worse, we receive 'reflections' of ourselves from friends and family who let us know how we look from their perspective — pale, ruddy, fat, thin, happy, sad — and who they believe we are — brilliant or stupid, succinct or verbose, creative or unimaginative, compassionate or indifferent, and many other things along the continuum between these extremes.

Are we not also reflected through the optic of our family history?

This works on two levels.

First, whose stories do we choose to share, and whose do we leave untended? What do those choices say about us as individuals?

Second, in whom do we see ourselves reflected? Which ancestor or relative do we most resemble, be it in the way that he/she looked, or how we imagine their visage, his/her manner of comportment, or the life he/she led?

Many identify with ancestors who emerged as heroes, whether in the battles fought in wars, or in working for social justice, or in simply raising the fortunes of the family.  However, is it perhaps too easy to see ourselves in the heroes? What if you found someone on your family tree who ended up in a workhouse? Would you be willing and able to see any part of that individual in yourself?

Some of us have ancestors and relatives who have suffered from mental illness. Can we see ourselves reflected in them? Are we able to tell their stories or are they kept under wraps?

As you look at your family tree, with whom do you truly have the most in common?

Who do you believe you would like most of all, and who would you honestly admit to disliking?

With whom could you see yourself arguing, and upon whom can you see yourself heaping praise?

If you stepped inside the looking glass and down into your family tree in whom would you see yourself reflected?

Think about it.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.
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11 comments:

  1. I truly enjoyed this post. It's an issue I struggle with continuously. I know that I "look" most like an aunt. Although I love her and she is a wonderful person with whom I have a good relationship, we could not be more different in our religious and philosophical views. You wonder how that can happen.

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    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I am glad this post meant something to you. I too have struggled with these questions and so wanted to share them with our community.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. I'm with Kathy - I have looked like my mother's oldest sister (whom my mother detested) all my life... and got the brunt of my mother's rage because of that, and since my aunt was rather narcisstic and theatrical/dramatic, I never ever wanted to be like her. There is religious intolerance in some of our past ancestors, bigotry, affairs, and more. But I - as an individual - can continue to make conscious choices, to be the best "who" I can be. And reflect the largest and most honest "family" of ancestors who came before, all of them. We are unique, indeed.

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    1. Hi Celia,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I feel a kinship with you and what you have said. All of my life I was told I look 'exactly' like my mom, something which was difficult to take when I was trying to carve out my own individual identity. As you say, we struggle, and ultimately we endeavour to be the best individual person we can be.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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    2. I should have said 'I have been told', not 'I was told'. I was making it sound as if I'm no longer here, but I am. :):)

      J.

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  3. I feel a kinship with Kathy and Celia on this. Looking like, feeling like, acting like other relatives or ancestors, good or bad, touches all of us. Thanks for this food for thought.

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    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comments. As I mentioned to Celia, I too feel a kinship with all of you in facing these sorts of questions.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. A very insightful post Jennifer. I guess we all "suffer" from the "you look like..." comments. These days I'm intrigued to hear my daughters comment on how much alike they look and refrain from saying "did you know how much like me, at your age, you look?"

    The most pertinent thing, though, is the need to be aware of potential blindness in the stories we research, and those we tell, about our ancestral families. Just like us they have flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths, even if they were (some of them) also heroes. How do we cope if we find someone whose ethics truly challenge our views of family? What of scandals we suspect or unearth?

    I know I have a bias towards expecting my ancestors to be ordinary people. We are who we are, because of all those who came before us, and because of our reflections, views and beliefs, and hard-won approach to life.

    Thanks for a great post.

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    1. Hi Pauleen,

      Thank you for your comments. As always, they are much appreciated. It is so true, as you say, that our ancestors were ordinary people with flaws, just like us. I find myself surprised when I speak with others who seem disappointed to find this is true. It seems as though many are searching for a great king or a famous pirate, instead of just a farmer or a carpenter. I find the stories of those ordinary people who strived and survived to be more compelling.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. Some very thought provoking questions! I've always been told that I look like my father, but I can see a lot of my mother's side of the family in me too. Lately, I've been drawn to those leaves in my tree with no descendants. Who were they and what was their story? So far, I've discovered war heroes, a nun that became a nurse in the 1870s, a female farmer that smoked a corncob pipe, and a woman that was labled "feeble minded" and spent many years in a county infirmary. She turned out to the be the key that finally helped my trace my Irish ancestors. Great post! Kathryn

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    1. Hi Kathryn,

      Thanks very much for your comments. Such an interesting group of 'Leaves with no descendants' you have there. Compelling histories and no doubt more of a challenge to find. Good on you for uncovering them!

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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