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her 42 grandchildren and their dozens of children and grand- children have taken a multitude of DNA tests. Those tests have revealed where the ancestors of Webb and Bertha originated in western Europe, where they first settled in North America and the geographic areas to which the various generations of their offspring moved. Those genetic tests could also reveal a lot about their physical attributes and biological propensities. Not a single DNA test, however, has the power to tell the story of what hap- pened that distant morning in the henhouse. You didn’t know Bertha, but chances are you have seen a multitude of commercials for genetic testing services. These simple tests are marvelous windows into your past. They have the power to confirm—and often dispute—family claims about where your ancestors originated hundreds of years ago (“Italian? I thought Dad said we were Iroquois!”). They can reveal your vulnerability to congenital health issues as well as your unknown genetic blessings. There are, however, limits to what they can tell us about our ancestors. DNA tests can’t tell us about the mile- stones, the challenges and the triumphs in the lives of our fore- bears. There are so many things we will never know about those whose lives created ours: What were they like? What did they do and why? What were their great dreams and sorrows? Why did they move from where they started and why did they choose where they ended up? How did they change over the years? As wonderful as DNA tests are, they are simply a fossil record of our ancestors, the skeletal remains of our family lives. As long as there have been humans, there have been efforts


to preserve the memories of those pivotal, life-changing events. Thinking about your personal history right now, you can easily draw to mind a half-dozen happenings and decisions that you


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would like to record about yourself that will help unborn gen- erations understand what shaped your life. The question is, how do we pass that personal history on to those we will never meet—or preserve it for those now living who don’t yet grasp its import? Oral history, spoken from one generation to the next, has


been a standard practice of many cultures. The late author Alex Hailey recalled that, from his earliest childhood, his adult rela- tives regaled him with stories of a distant ancestor named “Kunta Kinte” who had been kidnapped in Gambia in 1767 and brought to Maryland to be sold as a slave. Hailey’s story is note- worthy in part because it demonstrates that oral history can preserve important family events for centuries. Families have other means of preserving historical events as well. In the earliest decades of American history, it was custom- ary for households to have a “family Bible,” in which marriages, births and deaths were faithfully recorded. Legal documents like wedding licenses, birth certificates and wills also serve to this function. Many families hand down “treasures”—photos, trinkets, jewelry, keepsakes, scrapbooks, recipes, slogans—that are often indirect means of preserving history. Items such as these are mobile, personal time capsules and for centuries have been available to previous generations. Today, however, we have many new, technologically ad-


vanced methods of preserving our lives for our descendants and for the historical record. With inexpensive, readily available video and audio recording devices, we can capture our lives in real time. With wmv computer files, CDs, flash drives and inter- net cloud storage, we can preserve indefinitely the family and personal histories we have recorded. As wonderful and lasting as these new methods of preserving


our narratives are, however, they still have their weaknesses. While a video of a wedding ceremony offers a great deal more detail and insight than a one-line entry in the family Bible, it is still at best a snippet of what led up to that moment of matri- mony and all that ensued afterwards. Despite the virtues of our marvelous 21st century digital technology, it is still lacking when it comes to explaining us to those who will come after us. There is, of course, another aspect to the story of Alex Hailey


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and Kunta Kinte that sets their family apart. Hailey gathered the oral history of his forebears going all they back to their ancestral home, researched it painstakingly and wrote it down in a great family biography entitled Roots. The book, as you probably know, became a monumental television miniseries, so that Hailey’s family history became a part of our shared national story. While your personal and family history will probably never be turned into nationally broadcast TV miniseries, it’s still the case that the best way to record and hand down the history of your family is writing it down. The written word endures. When historians discuss “recorded history,” they are referring to the eras in which earlier generations devised written languages. Thanks to the development of the written word, we know precisely how major historical events transpired going back about 5000 years. Prior to that, we can only make good guesses based upon the inadvertent archeological trinkets and DNA our ancient family members left us. Thanks to written word, however, we don’t just know how


Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, but we know how Esau felt about it. The written word allows us not only to make note of the big events, the milestones, but also those subtle aspects of our history that our ancestors knew would be


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