By Cherry Gilchrist (Article from Watkins’ Mind Body Spirit magazine, issue 29, February 2012)
How much does our ancestry shape our identity? How relevant is it to our lives today? In this highly practical and inspiring book, experienced family researcher Cherry Gilchrist takes us on a fascinating journey to the heart of who we really are and demonstrates how looking at our past can change the present.
‘It happened one summer night, a few years ago. I had been working on my Welsh line of ancestry, trying to figure out the branch of the tree which I could now trace back to my 3 x great-grandfather, Edward Owens of Abbeycwmhir, a soldier who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. All that night, my sleep was disturbed by what seemed like a babble of voices. I heard people chattering insistently, and I knew that they were my Welsh ancestors. I could not make out what they were saying, but I had the distinct impression that they wanted to be ‘found’ again, and that they wanted their story to be told.’ (Chapter Two: Growing Your Family Tree)
It was a shock when I discovered that ancestors are not just names in birth, marriage and death records, but may still be intimately connected to us. I had held out against family history, and laughed off my father’s pursuit of it until at a certain age my perspective changed. Then I became intensely curious about my ancestry, especially on my mother’s side; going up the female line had an intrinsic appeal. Taking the plunge into the world of genealogical websites, microfiches and dusty documents, I began to trace the past, and found myself in the middle of an exciting detective story. Names were wrested from the shadowy past, faces unexpectedly put to names when photos turned up, and stories of heroes and villains built from nuggets of evidence. Overall, I found lives which were examples of love and endurance. There were no noble names on this side of the family, but I didn’t need them – there was enough nobility of being to inspire my loyalty.
But family history doesn’t stop with the stories either, as my encounter with ‘the Welsh voices’ shows. Was I just a victim of my imagination? All over the world, I reasoned, in times past and present, people have made a connection with those that have gone before them, in what anthropologists now like to call ‘ancestor veneration’. Ancestors are seen as protecting, guiding, and sometimes even disruptive influences – but they form a part of ongoing human life. I discovered, on my travels, ceremonies on Bali and on Easter Island that celebrate and invite the presence of the ancestors. So perhaps our practice of family history is at root a form of this. And when I began to interview other family historians, in the process of writing this book, I found that many of them shared this view that our ancestors are, in some sense, still present in our lives. Whatever terms we see this in – as a living chain of DNA recognised deep in our bodies, as a web of spirits or an imprint of historical events that can never be erased from consciousness – it is powerful and inspiring, and may be a dimension that we can reinstate in our lives. Even the diagrammatic family tree is a version of the Tree of Life, which features in so many myths and in core spiritual practices.
The subsequent chain of events in my life showed to my own satisfaction that this was not just imagination on my part. When such contact with the ancestral chain is made, the course of events may change.
‘Within a couple of months extraordinary things started to happen. A seemingly random hit on a website for a Welsh chapel led me to finding two separate lots of new cousins, also direct descendants of Edward Owens, and still living in the same region as my ancestors in mid-Wales. I had previously thought that everyone had moved away from the area. When I met up with Harold, my third cousin, he shook my hand, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “You’re the first member of the family to come back for a hundred years.”’
About the Author: Cherry Gilchrist is the author of nearly thirty books on relationships, personal development and culture. She runs an annual course on life story writing at Marlborough Summer School. Cherry also works with patients at a local hospice, helping them to set down their life stories and she has participated in creating a training programme for new volunteers. Growing Your Family Tree is her latest book.