Monday, November 26, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: All Families Have Stories

All families have stories.

They have stories which are myths, stories which are exaggerations,
stories which are lies or made up, and they also have stories which
are mostly true, or at least have grains of truth.

There are now about seven billion persons alive today. If we consider
a contemporary family to be composed of living great-grandparents,
grandparents, with their living children who are themselves often
parents, and the children of those parents, then we have a group we
might call a family. At the same time, each of the direct descendants
who married and have children and grandchildren are also by their
marriage (or marriages) part of another family. Defining a family
is therefore a complicated matter. (Just ask who goes to whose house
for Thanksgiving dinner.)

Not only that, if we go back before those who are now living, we
have generation after generation of the same family, but likewise
complicated by the bonding of two different families each time
there was a marriage.

Some groups such as the English and other Europeans who kept
records from an early date enable relatively reliable genealogies
going back up to a thousand years, especially if a modern day person
is descended from nobility or royalty. The Mormons have the largest
repository in the world (in Utah) of genealogy not only of themselves,
but of many other groups. The Jews, descended more or less directly
from those who were counted in the Old Testament, have a DNA
record going far back, but except in a few cases, no written genealogies
exist before the 16th and 17th century. (The Old Testament does,
however, have detailed genealogies of its earliest figures.) Because of his
prodigious mating habits in the 12th century, it is said that virtually all
Mongolians and related peoples today have DNA from Genghis Khan.

Of course, those who can trace their lineage quite often are proud of
it, not only for how far back they can go, but for any relatives of any
prominence found in that lineage. The larger point, however, is that
each person alive today is a direct descendent from a very limited
number of families going back tens of thousands of generations, long
before so-called biblical times, long before men and women lived in
formal marriages or even in one place.

Some of the most famous families in history, in antiquity or much
closer to our present time, no longer exist. Just one from so many
possible examples, is the family of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the
most famous American and its greatest president.  Lincoln’s last direct
descendent died recently. No doubt there are those alive today who
have some of his DNA because they were related to Mr. Lincoln’s
forbears, but the family entity directly issuing from the Great
Emancipator no longer exists.

In fact, the advance in biological science which isolated DNA genetics,
and is currently reconstructing the human genome, has replaced the
inexact stories (and sometimes, the myths) of family origins with
something far more verifiable and useful.

A few years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, excavations near
Ekaterinberg found the remains of what were thought to be the
executed Czar Nicholas, his wife and his children, as well as a few
retainers, all known to have been killed by Soviet agents on July 17,
1918 where they were being interned at nearby Ipatiev House in
the city.  Huge and mysterious fables had followed this notorious
incident because the bodies of the czar and his family had not been
found. The most famous myth from this event was, of course, the
romantic story of Anastasia, one of the czar’s five daughters who,
allegedly shot by the Soviet assassins, was plucked half-alive from the
pile of royal bodies, nursed back to health before escaping to Western
Europe and an unsuccessful reunion with surviving relatives.  This
story became a play, a hit movie and a modern fable although it was
totally false. Other stories from this event included other alleged royal
survivors, and the tale of a mysterious large trunk containing the
jewelry and other personal effects of the czar and his family, including,
it was macabrely said, parts of royal fingers with rings of precious
stones, that made its way by train across Asia and Europe before
disappearing circa the late 1920s.

The mystery was magnified not only because there were no bodies
found and no witnesses who gave contemporary public testimony, but
also because several Soviet authorities were eager to hide their own
complicity in the matter. It was further abetted by surviving members
of the Russian and other European royal families, all of whom were
closely related to each other, and eager to preserve the legitimacy of
their contemporary claims, and future claims, of royal rights and
prerogatives. It turned out that Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh
and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was himself part of the Greek
royal family which was directly (he is a grand-nephew of the last
czarina) related to the Russian royal family, and he was asked
for a DNA sample to help verify if the remains were of the czarina
and her children. The DNA answer was yes, and every member of the
family, including the czar’s son and heir, were eventually identified.

(I cannot help but add that Nicholas II was a weak and clueless monarch,
who not only was directly responsible for the death and suffering of so
many millions of his countrymen, it was his mobilization of the Russian
army in August, 1914 that led directly to the actual beginning of World
War I. Furthermore, it was his autocratic and feudal rule that kept Russia
from modernizing and democratizing its government, as was taking place
in much of Europe, that enabled Vladimir Lenin and a relatively few
communist thugs to take over the vast Russian empire in 1917, thus
establishing a 72-year dictatorship most notorious for the paranoid
one-man rule of Joseph Stalin (1929-53) that murdered millions of
Russian peasants before World War II, not to mention the tens of millions
who perished in World War II itself. The death of Nicholas II and his
immediate Romanov family, however brutal and unnecessary, was
therefore not the worst tragedy (or any tragedy at all) of the Russian
revolution, but on verifying the remains, the contemporary response in
Russia a few years ago was to declare the feckless Nicholas a saint!
Apparently, historic memory is also not as precise as DNA......)

The rest of us probably do not have such melodramatic stories and tales
as the Romanovs, nor such misleading myths, but as I have suggested,
every family does have stories to tell.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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