In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.
And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.
I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.
With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.
When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.
A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.
What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.
Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.
On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.
This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.
I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.
When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.
We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.