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By Staff | Dec 17, 2010

Like it or not, we all have ancestors. They may not be the ones we would have chosen, but there they are and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It used to be that having a notorious forebear was the sort of thing a person tried to hide. These days, having an ancestor who was a shameful scalawag seems to be a point of pride.

Just my luck that all my antecessors would be good folk. Why couldn’t I have even one rapscallion progenitor? Nothing so villainous as a Lex Luthor; perhaps something more along the lines of a Robin Hood.

My distant ancestors didn’t leave me much other than their DNA. You’d think they would have been more thoughtful. For instance, it would have been nice if they had bequeathed me a vast expanse of highly productive farmland. At the very least, they could have left me some sort of fortune which I could have used to finance my farming habit until the money ran out.

Sadly, no one in my family ever acquired the knack for inheriting land. Perhaps this is something that can be corrected by future geneticists.

Our eldest son Paul has recently taken an interest in his tracing roots. His research into the ancient and ancestral has been assisted greatly by modern tools, including Ancestry.com.

But technology can by no means do it all, which is why Paul and I spent an afternoon with my mother exploring the branches of her family tree. We climbed way out onto some tiny little twigs, such as my mother’s cousin’s husband’s sisters.

On my side of the family, Paul has been able to track down his ancestry to as far back as 1821. This adds up to four greats for him, as in great-great-great-great-grandmother. Quite a mouthful!

My side being entirely Norwegian, we ran across some sturdy Norsk monikers including Sigurd, Kjersti and Astrid.

We were also directed to places on the map that have unpronounceable names and include those strange Nordic vowels like the letter “o” with a slash through it, and an “a” and “e” smushed together. I have enough problems with the alphabet without adding any weird extra symbols.

After studying a map of whence my ancestors came, I concluded the best I could hope for is that some long-lost relative might be able to hook me up to a direct source of lutefisk. I would deem that a wondrous development while my wife, who finds lutefisk abhorrent, would deem it grounds for divorce.

I already knew a bit about my great-grandfather Henry. We have a photo of Henry and his wife, Betsy, with their brood of eleven children. According to the “record hints” gizmo on Ancestry.com, Henry was already counted as a citizen of Dakota Territory in the 1880 census.

There was nothing here in 1880! No roads, no trees, and the arrival of the railroad was still just a rumor. Yet somehow, apparently by sheer force of will, Henry and Betsy were able to carve out a farm and create a family from the desolate prairie.

We were also able to trace back my wife’s family back to the early 19th century. Her side is German, so pronouncing many of their names means making sounds similar to that of someone who is clearing their throat.

One of the “record hints” on her side mentioned Prussia. Now we’re talking. Maybe my wife is actually a duchess! Perhaps even a czarina! Maybe some dusty and forgotten vault in Old Europe holds a bejeweled Faberge egg with her name on it!

For some, my wife being German and me being Norwegian would mean that we have a mixed marriage. But we could actually be somewhat related due to the fact that the Vikings once controlled a territory that stretched from North America to the Arabian Peninsula.

We’re talking about the Vikings of a thousand years ago, obviously. The Vikings we have nowadays don’t seem to be able to control a territory the size of a football field for an afternoon.

My wife’s family tree also has a huge number of branches. We Norwegians, it seems, weren’t the only ones who liked to have lots of kids. In fact, the tree that Paul has created has grown to include well over 400 individuals.

This cyber family tree looks so very neat and tidy on the computer screen. But each set of dates represents an entire lifetime. Each symbolizes decades of joy and sorrow, births and deaths, hellos and goodbyes, thousands of sunrises and sunsets.

Everyone wonders where they came from and it’s so cool that Paul has undertaken this project. I just hope he lets me know if he ever finds a relative who owns a lutefisk factory.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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