How does your family affect who you are? Can stories of the past still resonate in the present?
Each of us is a unique genetic mixture of several ancestors in our mother and fathers’ families, and we have long accepted that our human hardware – as it were – is a product of these thousands of predecessors.
That makes up the “nature” part of our individual formation as people, and the “nurture” part – how we are raised by our families during the formative years of development – has largely been held responsible for what comprises our human software: our opinions, beliefs, and personalities.
Without downplaying the important role of environment, there’s reason to suspect that genetics also plays a part in what has historically been attributed to nurture.
Epigenetics is a relatively young science with many important, unanswered, fundamental questions, but there’s good evidence that, indeed, the experiences of our ancestors altered the expression of their genes in ways that were passed on to us (see this Nature article as one explanation, “Epigenetics: The sins of the father”).
On the flip side, that suggests to me that the actions you and I take today can slowly help to heal the hurts and subsequent genetic alterations our ancestors experienced so that we and our children can begin to recover from traumas of the past.
In my curiosity to learn more about my family, I began to make deeper connections with myself. I’ve been able to recognize themes in my own life that are echoes from the past. My hope is that I can bring some bit of redemption to the hurts in my family.
I’m not interested in exposing any secrets, but as I’ve learned of the humble origins of my paternal line, the Wiseners, stories have emerged that call for healing.
I’ve been told my grandfather was a hard man (he unfortunately passed before I was born), which is not surprising for a farmer who lived during the Depression in rural Indiana. He was one of 11 siblings, which makes for a massive extended Wisener family.
Yet, I only know cousins and great aunts and uncles from a few of those siblings, in large part due to a falling out among several which resulted in them no longer associating with each other.
How tragically sad and troubling that brothers and sisters could choose to not have anything to do with one another anymore, yet I sense the residuals of the kind of attitude that could result in such a tragedy within myself, when I am tempted in my anger to lay hyperbolic waste to whatever draws my ire.
Tracing back further, it becomes evident at least to my great-great grandfather that subsequently my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were (and are) kinder, gentler versions of those that preceded them, as there is very little remembered except negative overtones of my great-great grandfather Isaac Newton. Of his father, little can be said, as he died of as-yet unknown causes just before his 30th birthday in 1860.
My fourth and fifth great-grandfathers were Quakers, though my fourth was dismissed from the religion, and my fifth was responsible for bringing the family from South Carolina to Western Ohio.
My sixth great-grandfather was one of at least five brothers, sons of my seventh great-grandfather, Jacob, who came to America on August 30, 1749 from Bubendorf, Switzerland.
Jacob’s role in my family was so obscured by the passing of generations that it took the hard work of a distant cousin, the late Carrie Wisener MacKenzie, to identify him and his son John as our mutual great-grandfathers, work that has been bolstered by my own genetic test results.
Settling in northern South Carolina in the 1750s, Jacob and his family seem to have been victims of the Revolutionary War – there is evidence that at least one of his sons was a Patriot and one was a Tory (and my fifth great-grandfather – a son of John – embraced pacifism once he became a Quaker). There was an incredible amount of fighting in the area in which Jacob and his family lived, and Jacob seems to have passed sometime around 1777 before the war’s end.
It has proved difficult to learn much of Jacob and his sons outside of South Carolina land records, which lends further credence to the evidence that all of his sons went their separate ways and lost touch with one another. No related Wiseners seem to have remained in South Carolina following the early 1800s.
Even before setting foot in America in 1749, Jacob received the equivalent of a curse when leaving his native Bubendorf, Switzerland, a place where the Wiseners lived for hundreds of years, back to the beginning of recorded history in the area during the late 1400s. People were so discouraged from emigrating from Switzerland at the time that, once they made the decision to leave, they had to forfeit all property and possessions and were barred from ever returning.
I don’t know what the experiences of my Wisener ancestors were prior to Jacob, but I know enough of the ordeal he and his descendants went through, and many of the struggles each subsequent generation experienced seem to be variations on similar themes.
So I find myself privileged to be able to visit Bubendorf, Switzerland in a couple days. Though Jacob literally has thousands of American descendants, given his obscurity and the extent of my search so far locating common relatives, it’s a pretty safe bet that I’m one of his few descendants who realizes he’s my ancestor, so it’s very likely I’ll be the first of his progeny to do what he could not – go home again.
A symbolic act, to be sure, but it’s also something potentially much more. By knowing Jacob’s story and the story of his family, I can be one who starts to set things right, by starting with me.
I can do my part to cancel whatever shame may be lingering in my “epigenetic awareness” (so to speak) about not being able to return home. I can tell the story of the family and the tragedies of members choosing to disassociate, and I can refuse to do so myself. I can choose to intentionally remain connected, and I can encourage my fellow family members to do the same.
Ultimately, as important as family is, this means more than even that. This is about being healthy human beings. It’s about wrestling with weaknesses, whether those are personal or inherited, and refusing to be victimized by them. It’s about seeking wholeness, seeking peace, and spreading that shalom wherever we are.
I’ll be sharing some pictures of my journey to Switzerland, and maybe I’ll have a tale or two to tell when I return!