This season on Who do you think you are?, seven of the world’s most beloved celebrities will embark on life-altering journeys into their family history. They will travel the world in search of their heritage, family mysteries will be revealed, and everything they thought they knew will be rewritten. Lives will be changed. Roots will be discovered. Because to know who you are, you have to know where you came from.
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten sucked into two different TV shows about genealogy. Specifically, celebrity genealogy. (How else to draw viewers to a TV show about genealogy, right?)
Faces of America was hosted by renowned Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the “celebrities” ranged from authors (Malcolm Gladwell) to artists (Yo-Yo Ma) to athletes (Kristi Yamaguchi) to actresses (Meryl Streep)…to fake news pundits (Stephen Colbert). Henry Gates researched each of these subjects family trees for them, and in some cases, was even able to link them to one another. (Who knew that Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria shared ancestors? Crazy, huh?)
The NBC program, Who do you think you are?, was produced by Lisa Kudrow, and besides her, featured six other Hollywood personalities plus a famous athlete/Dancing with the Stars champion: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Emmitt Smith, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee. This program followed each celebrity as they traced various branches of their respective family trees—with lots of behind-the-scenes help, a huge travel budget, and blatant product placement by ancestry.com.
Both programs fascinated me, and made me realize how shallow the roots of my own family tree is.
My dad is the ninth of 12 children born to first- and second-generation Ukrainian immigrants. His father was born in 1895 and arrived at Ellis Island 18 years later, in 1913. He ended up in western Pennsylvania, where he worked most of his years as a coal miner, and he met my grandmother at a church picnic. My grandmother’s parents were immigrants, I understand, and she was born in the state of Delaware. I seem to remember one of my uncles telling me that my grandmother was the oldest of her siblings to survive; four more children were born after her and lived into old age, but Grandma was the fifth or sixth or seventh baby born to her parents, but the first one born in the United States. None of her older siblings survived infancy.
My grandfather was 28 and my grandmother was 16 when they married. There is a 27-year difference in age between my dad’s oldest sister and youngest brother.
My mom was the first-born of two children to a dairy farmer and his teacher wife. (Apparently, my mother was the third pregnancy and my uncle the fifth, but they were the only ones to actually be born. ) Mom and Uncle John are classic WASPs—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—and have English, German, Scotch-Irish blood running through their veins, and there is possibly more to that ethnic cocktail.
My dad used to joke that he was the “thoroughbred” who married the “mutt.” I imagine my mom found that amusing the first dozen times she heard it. Or not.
None of my grandparents are still living, and my mother passed away close to four years ago. My dad is pushing 70, and most of his still-living siblings are in their 70s and 80s. One of his older brothers has done some genealogical research, and even traveled to visit the tiny Eastern European village where his father was born. I hope to follow in his footsteps someday…I think several of my cousins would jump at the chance to make that trip with me.
My mom’s younger brother is still alive, and while he certainly knows more than I about the older generations, I don’t know how far back he can trace our roots. I really need to interview him about what he does know. Soon.
When I was in grade school, I learned to love Nancy Drew mystery stories, and I think that’s part of what I find attractive about these genealogy programs. The search for clues, the pursuit of leads, the dead-ends, the sometimes shocking discoveries. (One of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestors was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts! Who knew?) I know it’s not glamorous, but there’s a romance to the investigation process that I love. Heck, I love the word investigation!
There’s only so much we will ever be able to truly know about the past, but how fascinating to catch a glimpse into the lives of people who came before us. They are more than just names in a ledger; they lived full, tragic, joyful, complicated lives. Just like us. Without microwave ovens, cell phones or Facebook.
Who were they?
Who am I?