The Motif of Origins

I’ve always been fascinated by origins. In college, I double majored in marketing (to make a living) and history (motivated by that fascination).

When I was a kid, my own origins seemed clear enough on my mother’s side since I grew up in the same town her people had lived for a few generations. On my father’s side, “far away” in Chicago,  there were so many gaps and distortions and puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together.

As I finished my undergraduate degree and entered grad school, I realized that I didn’t really know nearly as much about even my mother’s family as I had thought. I focused my study on local Kalamazoo history and, ultimately, on my family’s history.

More recently, I’ve been writing my family history blog and trying to find answers to the many questions that arise.

  • What branch of the family was made homeless by the fire mentioned in a newspaper clipping I found in my grandmother’s papers? (Answer: the George Paake family–and I’ve made an acquaintance of a shirttail relation and been given copies of many family photographs and documents)
  • What happened to my great-great-grandfather’s sister Jennie when she left Kalamazoo? (Answer: she moved to Seattle with her two adult daughters. A kind stranger’s father found their scrapbook at the nursing home he worked at 20 years ago. After reading my blog, she has now passed that scrapbook on to me so I have beautiful photographs of these women in Seattle)
  • How many Van Liere siblings were there?  (Answer: 8–see photo below)
  • How many DeSmit siblings? (Answer: I don’t know yet!)
A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

The VanLiere boys

Surprisingly, people who have found my genealogy blog have shared many photos and enthralling stories of my family.

My very first blog post on Writer Site, “The Study of Faces,” was about my feelings of connection to my ancestors.

While the search for origins in my book has nothing to do with the genealogy I focus on in The Family Kalamazoo, it is also motivated by a curious nature and a search for identity. Issues of inheritance, genetics, and rights to our own stories are part of the subject of origins.

How is it with you? Are you ambivalent or uninterested? Do you care about your origins? Are you obsessed with them?




Filed under Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals

52 responses to “The Motif of Origins

  1. Loved your post! I am curious about my origins and our family history and I do try to get my mom to tell some things.

    I have a friend in Edinburgh who has created a whole database of his genealogy, which includes jobs people had, historic events at the time, photos and other visual material, relations, friendships and so much more. I can see how much of himself he has put in this project and I love going back and seeing how people were connected to each other.

    • Nicholas, your friend’s database sounds absolutely amazing. That is the sort of thing that I could only dream about–like recreating a neighborhood that my relatives lived! Does your friend share the information with others in any particular format, I’m wondering . . . . Yes, definitely try to get information from your mother. In fact, there are questionnaires set up (I don’t have one but have seen them–or I would share) to use that helps get our parents and grandparents thinking about these things. It helps them remember things they don’t know that they do! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing.

  2. When my children were in high school, I was getting to know all of my older relatives better and documenting their histories. I wanted to pass them on. Now, my kids have little to no interest. Beyond my daughter being interested in her great grandmother’s American Indian heritage, there’s never been much interest. She used to be interested in her father’s German heritage, but even that has faded. None of the guys are.

    • SK, this is true in most families, I think (unfortunately). Of my grandparents’ 6 grandchildren, I am really the only one who cares. I am sharing the fruits of what I am doing with all of them online, but they rarely read it. My mother and uncle do read it. And other people more distantly related. My own children and my brother are adopted, and they don’t have the interest–although in doing genealogy I have met several people who were adopted who are researching their adoptive family genealogies, as well as trying to find leads to their birth family information. Since I was the one given all the stories and the photos, I feel a responsibility, and I hope that at least one of the children of my cousins ends up interested in being the keeper of the information eventually.
      On a related note, because of my intense curiosity about my origins, I am very strongly for adoptee rights–starting with the right to the knowledge of their own birth heritage and health information. I feel this way more strongly than my kids do!

  3. True story – I was supposed to do a genogram of my family in grad school, and I was so pressed for time I made up an entire history! It was damn good reading though. My imaginary family is fascinating!

    Seriously though, love love love these old photos. TO me they alone tell such a story.

    • I read this earlier this morning on my iPhone. I almost spit my tea all over said phone. The funniest early morning story EVER. Good grief. Do you still have it? You should post it on your blog. Did you get an A?
      The old photos are amazing. Did you know there are photograph detectives? Without using one, though, you can find out sooooooooo much. I like to post them on my genealogy blog and get tips from other bloggers :).

  4. Yes, Luanne, I care very much about my genealogy. I guess I haven’t had the time (good excuse, huh?) to go into it. But you did not to go through the standard “”, did you? You don’t have to answer that, I don’t think you did. I think, on my part, with so little of my family left, I may have to do something like that. Fascinating……. the fire and all. People were very resilient back then.

    • Hollis, earlier today I wrote a LONG reply and then got called away from the computer before I posted. My computer went into suspend because my computer guy just changed the settings, so I lost it all. The gist of it was that I began with pencil and notecards and my grandfather when I was young and then when I went back to it later on I did use to begin with. I’ve learned a lot since then, but I never have time to record everything that I find, so my records are a mess–and so is my tree. So frustrating, but the details of that are kind of boring ;). Also, that I’ve since learned things that have happened to the family with the fire. They were new immigrants and the mother had recently died and the children were young when the fire occurred–and the father was sick. It did end up affecting the rest of their lives.

      • What I find interesting about looking up your ancestors, is that it unveils mysteries about ourselves. We can attribute characteristics we possess to those who went before us. It is so exciting to me! Good for you to be doing it! I think it’s really cool also, because our kids are adopted. I wish I knew more about my daughter’s family tree. Now that she is “out of the nest”, I feel freer to pursue mine! (Not wanting to hurt her feelings)

        • Hollis, I understand about the waiting until she is out of the nest–that is exactly what I did and for the same reason.
          The only time we worked with origins before that was when my daughter applied to be an American Girl paperdoll, we did research together, both adoptive and bio. She was selected to be one, too.
          When I talked to my kids about the DNA tests (for instance there is a Facebook group for Asian adoptees who have taken the DNA test to talk about the results), they said they wanted to take the 23andme test. At that point they offered the medical information and that was their main reason. In fact, it’s my son’s only reason as I don’t think he wants to meet any bio relatives. Daughter took hers first and then just as son decided, they took out the medical portion because the government made them. When they got their results I ran them both through Promethease for them (for $5 you can get the medical info), so daughter has 2 sets of medical results and son has one. They enjoyed reading those, but they haven’t tried to connect with any “matches” on their tests. What surprised me at first was how many 3rd and 4th cousin matches there were and how there were adoptees in that group, too, but there is more homogeneity in the gene pool in Korea, where they were born, than in the United States.

  5. I love digging into history.

  6. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed, but I find as my parents age, I want to know more and more from their past and my grandparents past. My dad has done more research than anyone in my family.

    • Jill, you are so lucky that your father has done so much research for you and it takes away the awkward edge when you ask your parents about their pasts. Make sure you get your hands on his work and understand it! And try to interview your parents on different occasions and write down the info! My genealogy advice for the day ;). xo

  7. I love the idea of exploring origins. I’ve debated on researching my family tree, but honestly I have no idea where to start. My grandparents are deceased and there are no real records to research because India didn’t necessarily memorialize birth dates in the early 1900’s. I am so glad you have records to access to help you gain knowledge about your origins.

    • Rudri, it’s so frustrating to do genealogical research with obstacles like that. Now that you mention it, I haven’t read any genealogy blogs about Indian ancestors. Different African ethnicities, yes, Japanese, yes. Many European. I think if you wanted to do it you would need to see if somebody else has gone there before you in terms of doing Indian research to see what ways there are to search. For instance, do the temples keep any records of any kind? What about local government records? Newspapers? Things like that.

  8. I have always been fascinated by my family’s origins and we have only one mystery in my family – who was my great-grandmother really (on my father’s side)? All we know is she was Brazilian and apparently an orphan and according to my grandmother very guarded about her past.

  9. The things in my family history that make me wonder are the psychological things that made them who they are and that tends to be stuff that is very hard to find out when they’re dead and gone. I know nothing about grandparents families, how they were treated, raised, and managed in day to day life. Those are the things I’d like to know and understand.

    • Yes, and those are the most difficult things to find. What I am finding are things that point to surprises that might be related to what you want to know. For instance, why did so many of my family members rely on orphanages or “strangers” to help with children when there were siblings who had their own kids? Why didn’t the siblings step up to help out, at least temporarily?
      By the way, you might want to read my comment above to Hollis re DNA testing for the kids.

  10. Now that I’m middle age, I realize more that who I am and what I feel echoes so much oxbow I was raised by my parents and grandparents. I know that should I trace back my origins, I am sure to understand myself better. As they say, a lot of the past has a a lot to do with our present.

    • Ah, you are so right that the past has a lot to do with our present! I am always surprised to see how this leads to this and then that leads to that–and I don’t know why I’m surprised! Learning more about my father’s origins has caused me to understand him better and therefore to understand my own upbringing.

  11. Like you, I know a lot about my mom’s side of the family and little about my dad’s. Why did his parents come to the U.S.? Are any of their relatives alive? If so, do any live in the U.S.? Where? Why did my grandfather change his name? Why did he hate religion? Was he in the military — or not? What did my father do on all the Thursdays he was supposedly visiting his mom in Detroit? Why do I have a gene for Mediterranean Familial Fever? It goes on and on — unanswerable questions.

    • WJ, this is exactly why I have so much sympathy for adoptees who don’t know anything about their origins. Look at all your questions and you were raised with both your parents. It’s especially difficult when one has a curious nature like yours and like mine. Now you have me really wondering what he did in Detroit on Thursdays. Can you write a story about it?

  12. My cousins on both sides of the family have traced our history and it’s very intriguing! And the best thing is I didn’t have to do it but can read through it at my leisure. I love knowing where I come from and who is who in all the old family photos 🙂

    • Dianne, hah, I love it! I wish you were my cousin so that I would have somebody of my generation who is interested in the stuff I’ve learned! And you are pretty lucky that somebody else did all the work as it is super time consuming!!!

  13. This is fascinating indeed Luanne. How amazing that you have been able to find what out all this, and to have someone find you through your blog with a family photo album! That’s pretty amazing in my book. I know more about my mother’s side than my father’s and would love to know so much more. I did find my half-brother though after 30 years of not knowing where he was (he was 6 when I last saw him and he remembered me!). I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed but I find it so interesting. Great post 🙂

    • Finding your half-brother is huge. That is wonderful that you were able to do so. Do you still have a connection–in other words, do you see each other or correspond? Why is it so often we know about one side of the family but not the other? It’s almost as if the family makes room for one side more than the other, for various reasons. In my case, proximity was part of it, but not the only reason.
      Re the photo album: it was such an amazing bit of luck. that the woman’s father had rescued it from the trash 20+ years ago at the nursing home he worked at, that the family held onto it for years although they didn’t know the people in the photos, and that she found my blog and the one or two posts I’d written about looking for Jennie!! And then her kindness to give it to me!!! Jennie’s daughters never had children, so I would be one of the closest relatives today (of many of equal closeness) as Jennie was my great-great-grandfather’s sister. What I find so interesting is that I can see the familial look in her of my great-grandmother (her niece) and that is the relative I most look like. So while I don’t look like Jennie, I get that sense of “our” look when I look at her photos. I hope I don’t have her scowl though ;).

      • That really is an incredible story about the photo album Luanne, I just love stories like that!
        My half-brother and I met at long last 3 years ago. It was incredibly emotional, we just hugged and cried for ages without speaking. He remembered me as his older sister who looked out for him (I was 18 when I last saw him, he 6) and I never knew how he came through his terribly difficult childhood with my/our alcoholic dad who by then was non-functioning in everyday life. We kept in touch since then by email and text and the occasional phone call for the first year, then it trailed off and now we have intermittent communication. Life and all its busyness gets in the way…as we let it, which is shame…but we both want to meet up again and I know we will. We live in different parts of the country and live different lives but the love we have for one another as brother and sister will never diminish, I know that. He is 42 now and will always be my kid brother. I plan to write about it one of these days, when I write about my dad and my life with him – but not until my first memoir is written 🙂
        Oh, and you don’t have a scowl at all Luanne…far from it. I see a beautiful smiling face 🙂 But isn’t it amazing how these family likenesses can be seen? Utterly fascinating, all of it 🙂

  14. I love looking at these old photos! I’m interested in my origins, but I haven’t actively looked for information about it. It’s on my things to do in the future list.

    • Faith, old photos are one of my favorite things, I think! They offer up so many surprises and such detail about a world I can only imagine! When you start to look into your origins, check out some of the genealogy blogs. There are such interesting ones, with great ideas for how to look and you get a feel for the different ways there are to research. I’ve learned so much from bloggers about all this stuff! You can also find these through Twitter. Use the tags #familyhistory and #genealogy. And have fun!

  15. Hi Luanne. Great post. I am obsessed with my family history too. I think that is one motivation to write historical fiction. I can imagine what happened to people in my grandparents’ and parents’ generations and can dig deeper into their personalities. Good luck in your search for more information!

    • Patti, I think the curiosity to know more about those generations leads to writing as discovery. It’s so fascinating. I could never just do genealogy where you record dates and leave it at that ;). Thank you so much–you too!!

  16. I think you may know how I have written my parents, grandparents and great grandparents’ love stories in my posts. I am very interested in my family’s history, wish that my Dad’s family had more than a family tree, would have liked to have more written details and more photographs. They are a small family, so it is not as easy to find much out. I learned a lot in ‘broad strokes.’ My Mom’s family is much more detailed and more archived, too. Thanks for this Origins post. It is a good one to motivate me!

    • Robin, I love that you are interesting in writing about your family and wish you had more information and photographs. I don’t know if this would help at all, but have you ever tried Genealogy Bank or other sites for newspapers? It’s a site that I find a lot easier to use than a lot of them, but there is a charge for this one (write me if you want me to look up someone in particular for you). They have the databases for a lot of newspapers, which is what I use it for. You can put in a date range and your ancestor’s name and see what comes up. Surprisingly, many of my relatives show up in one thing or another. For instance, the girls in the photo above were in an orphanage when their parents were divorcing. There is one clipping that says that the couple of arguing in court about the girls being there. There is another article about the Christmas performance at the orphanage–the older girl was one of the backup singers for one number. I think if your ancestors don’t come from a huge city it helps. For instance, my relatives who were in Chicago are much less likely to show up in the newspaper. So my point is that there is more information out there than you know, but it’s a matter of finding it. More and more information is moving to the internet, too.

  17. Love the photos of those ladies! 🙂 They were all covered and looked good. I love my family history, the problem is, it’s so jumbled up it’s hard to collate everything together. Incredibly, my children are more interested to know a lot about my dad’s side of the family rather than my mom’s side. When I have the time, I would have to travel down to Florida to see a few relations but most of my mom’s family are in Nigeria. To be sincere, I’m not sure I’ll have the time, maybe after retirement and when the kids have flown the nest… 🙂

    • Thank you so much re the ladies. In the scrapbook I can see that they were lucky to have many pretty outfits, which does make me wonder if maybe one or more of them were seamstresses.
      Where is your dad’s family from, Seyi? I hear you about the time all this takes. I was lucky to have a lot of photos and stories land in my lap and I have not had to do much “legwork” at all. But most people do have to. It’s a shame your children aren’t more interested in the Nigerian side of your family.
      On a related note about Nigeria, have you ever read Faith Adiele’s book about traveling to Nigeria to learn about her father’s people? She was brought up by a white American mom but her dad was an “exchange student” from Nigeria and when she was an adult she wanted to learn about half her heritage. I have NOT yet read her book, though I eventually will. She was my teacher and I have this thing about not reading teacher’s books until awhile after I’m done being their student hahaha. I think a documentary was even made about her trip to Nigeria, if I’m not mistaken. She calls herself “The Original Obama” ;).

      • Apologies for just replying now Luanne, I’ve been so busy! My dad’s family is from Nigeria, and some from Florida. My granddad was a very rich prince who travelled to the US in the early 1930’s and played away if you know what I mean 🙂 but my dad was born in Nigeria, and he did went back to Florida, did his Masters program and stayed there for a while but I think he liked Nigeria a lot. He seldom talk about his other heritage and none of us kids were keen to know more. Something definitely happened and I can’t go into the details here.

        I was born in Nigeria too but still knew I had links through my granddad elsewhere in the US! The story is kind of murky but I’m certain I’ll work on it someday, visiting people that could be family. With his passing, I know it would be difficult but I intend to find out one day!

        I’ve never heard of Adiele’s book, I’ll check it out. My daughter is keen about Nigeria, but her brothers weren’t really too keen. I guess since I know all about my Nigerian root, it’s really easy to know who is who and trace everyone. I would be taking them down next year to learn about that part of my life. 🙂

  18. How fortunate you were to get your hands on the scrapbook of photos. Who would have known such benefits of blogging. 🙂

    • Carol, I had NO idea. In fact, at first I was planning to keep my genealogy blog private so that only the family could get into it. Then I figured it was too much trouble and I would just open it up, but it would be essentially private. I am so glad I decided to do that because so many people who have connections to my family have discovered the blog and contacted me!

  19. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    What wonderful photographs! My family—we are very Southern—tends to focus on the mythic telling of our past. I was SO surprised when I began to research my memoir and discovered a lot of it was true! My great-grandfather, for example, really did author the legislation that outlawed convict leasing in Mississippi. I’m currently revising a novel that features convict leasing, even further mythologizing the telling.

    • Ellen, the convict leasing sounds awful. That’s so cool that your great-grandfather accomplished what he did. You are so lucky to be part of a storytelling culture. In that way you can plug into something larger than your own body of work and interact with it. I come from individual storytellers, but they are not part of a storytelling culture–more of a culture of secrecy. hahaha

  20. Origins are so interesting Luanne – it’s wonderful to try and trace a line from the past. I was lucky that I studied Women’s Studies and as part of that, asked my mother lots of questions about her history that I wouldn’t have known. I’ve traced my family tree back a little but it would be fascinating to be able to round out those names with more information about their lives.

    • Without these assignments a lot of us would never have gotten started. What a neat thing it would be parents today to help their children create a project of asking their grandparents questions about when they were young.

  21. I feel as if I ought to know more but am too lazy to start a proper search. Dad’s side is complicated and Mam is long dead so I don’t have too much information to start with. I admire your efforts, Luanne. 🙂

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