Search for meaning in researching family

  • Mon Aug 27th, 2012 8:23pm
  • Life

By Sarri Gilman

I am fascinated by the television show “Faces of America” with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates traces people’s families as far back as possible, always uncovering stories about someone in the family worthy of a novel. He finds places people came from that were never spoken of in their family.

On the show, I have seen headstones, trees on land where a family lived, books full of family records that were hidden in walls, deeds of land records of slavery and stories of survival, luck, brilliance, love, loss and coincidences across time that seem impossible.

If I step back, I realize stories about families have always fascinated me. I read either memoirs or huge epic novels that span several generations. The book I’m currently reading is “Some Sing, Some Cry” by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza, a novel about seven generations long.

I work as a family therapist. Stories about families show up in my office, one after another.

All of this interest and care about families seems odd considering that I came from a very broken family. Another way of looking at it is by the time my family reached my generation, it became a generation that was somewhat brutal and devastating all at once.

But surely it was not always like that, and it makes me want to learn more about my family’s past, what came before the devastation? What else was part of my family story?

In a way, I have found some hope by watching “Faces of America.” I realize five or more generations back, my family had completely different stories and I want to collect those stories.

I realize that I am about to embark on an epic journey. I am going to begin with my aunt and with Sno-Isle libraries. The library promises that it has resources to help with this sort of research. I’m going to put them to the test.

It seems that most of my life I was only able to think about the past two generations of my family and a small piece of a third generation. I was stuck. I have only a piece of the story. I am ready to dig and try to find my way back in time.

I won’t have Henry Louis Gates Jr. by my side, and I am not able to spend a fortune on the hunt. I will start at the library, see what I can do for free, and cross my fingers that my aunt has been saving all kinds of family history.

There is something inside of me that is suddenly ready to research this, ready like the way you feel ready to have a baby. I’m ready.

It’s a commitment. It’s my new big project.

I’m not expecting to find a queen or a hero, I’m just hoping for some people who made a difference where ever they were. I’m hoping to find some people who cared for each other and those around them.

I’m hoping to find stories of people worth finding, stories worth knowing.

Sarri Gilman is a freelance writer living on Whidbey Island and director of Leadership Snohomish County. Her column on living with meaning and purpose runs every other Tuesday in The Herald. You can email her at