Thursday, April 12, 2012

Traits from our Ancestors?

Last night I had a free moment and was able to sit and watch episodes of Finding Your Roots, a genealogy research series on PBS hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Each episode discovers the roots of two American celebrities and discusses the historical times their ancestors lived in.

The episode I watched featured Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey and John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights activist. In the search for Congressman Lewis' ancestors, it was revealed that his ancestor was one of the first black men in his Alabama county to vote following the emancipation of slaves in 1865. This was especially poignant for Congressman Lewis because 100 years later he fought along side Martin Luther King, Jr. to restore the vote to African Americans in the state of Alabama and across the country. His activism returned the vote to his parents that his great, great grandfather had enjoyed 100 years earlier. Lewis was visibly moved by this information and stated that taking advantage of the right to vote must be "in his DNA."

This triggered a thought for me: is it possible that we receive traits from our ancestors? It is easy for me to pinpoint the traits I received from my parents and grandparents. From my father's side I gained a "stand up and fight" attitude and my strong will. From my mother I gained my love of having fun and working hard so that you can enjoy some good times. From both sides I gained a strong work ethic. These things are easy to pinpoint because I know the people involved personally. But what of the ancestors I have never met...that my parents never met. Is it possible to receive traits from those individuals?
Florence and Margaret McGuire. What traits did I gain from these women?
I believe that it is. And in my case I believe that it is "in my DNA" to serve my country. I have countless ancestors in my tree that have served in the military. I'm sure that not all of their service records were exemplary or that their motives for joining were always admirable. But for the most part, those ancestors felt the need to serve their country or fight for whatever cause they believed in. My military roll has not been a big one and has been, luckily, uneventful. But I am the first female member of my family, on either side, to serve in the armed forces. No one will remember my time in the service, but if I make a difference to one person, to one Soldier, it doesn't matter. And someday many, many years from now one of my descendants will ask themselves what trait their ancestors passed along and if I'm lucky it will be the desire to serve for the better good.
A photo of the Frank Earl Kuhn family showing two of my many military ancestors. In the center is my grandfather, Leroy Kuhn, that served in the Army in WWII and on the far right is Edwin Kuhn who served in the Navy. Not pictured is their brother, Warren Kuhn, who served in the Army and was killed in action.

Do you believe that these types of traits can be passed on? What did you gain from your ancestors?


Kathy, the Single-minded Offshoot said...

I love the "Finding your Roots" series - this second series is even better than the first. Congressman Lewis touched my heart as he learned that his ancestors also were fighters for freedom. Your feeling that we can know a lot about our more distant ancestors is my belief too. I see signs of it on both my mother's and my father's sides of the family. Those glimpses are a wonderful source of connection and more and more I feel that I know them well. Thanks for the post sharing this with your readers who may not yet have thought about their more spiritual DNA.

Patrick Jones said...

A very thoughtful post. You're right, and I've been thinking along similar lines in my own history search. By highlighting the stories and experiences of those who came before us we also enable those traits to continue on. Thanks for this.

Nancy said...

Heather, I read this when you first published it and didn't leave a comment. I came back because Jen at Finding My Family Tree highlighted it.

When I first read it I thought, "Of course." After reading it again again, I'm still saying the same thing. My sibs and I are pretty strong-willed (or perhaps sometimes stubborn) and we always say, "That's the Doyle side" or "That's the Doyle coming out in you." I whole-heartedly believe that the genes we receive from previous generations carry more than eye color.

Thanks for a thoughtful post.

zelsersk said...

I do think that personality traits that lead to our attitudes and approach to life are passed on. Philosophy on life is also passed on from what we learned orally or in writing from our parents, grandparents, and even from our great grandparents. They are connected for sure.