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"I Am Who They Were"


I was delighted recently to discover artist Ashley Gilreath’s project entitled “I Am Who They Were”. It’s so much more than just a necklace made from family photographs. Here’s how she describes it:

“This necklace was made to represent the memory of my grandparent’s long staircase in their house. I want the viewer to see my history as the necklace wraps around, and to feel the sensation of climbing up and down the stairs as the images of my family line the walls. More importantly, I wanted my skin to show through as my family’s skin, so that my stories, my life and who I am as an individual is shown as the sum of all of the people that came before me.”

I love the image of her taking in the sweep of her family history as she traverses her grandparents’ stairs. Giving the photographs a transparent background so her skin shows through them is a deft and remarkably creative touch, conveying powerfully her belief that she is “…the sum of… the people that came before me.” As intuitively appealing as this idea is, however, it does not ring completely true to me, either as a genealogist or as an occasional dabbler in linear algebra.

Nature vs. Nurture

As I research my family history, I can see how characteristics such as appearance, health, temperament or talent may have been passed down to me, whether via genetics or simply through family culture. I like to think I’ve inherited the Smith family’s entrepreneurial drive, for example, or the Ingersolls’ passion for education. And it was just last week that someone told me “you look just like your mother.”

But I also believe I retain control over the influence I let my ancestors have in determining “who I am as an individual.” If I am the sum of my ancestors, than I’m confident it is a weighted sum, that the weights are unequal, and that I can adjust those weights as I see fit over time. Furthermore, I’m also the sum of my education, experiences, and other non-hereditary factors. Many of you will recognize the familiar Nature vs. Nurture debate here. I’m squarely on the side of “both”!

I suspect Ashley would agree with me that genealogy isn’t destiny — that our lives are influenced and informed, but not pre-determined, by those of our ancestors. My efforts to catalog my progenitors’ stories are fueled by the desire to incorporate the best of what they have done, learned, and become into my own being, while leaving their less desirable characteristics emphatically behind. I can only hope that my children do the same.

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