Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Ancestral Ties

By Skip Hellewell

Do you remember Pan Am, the airline that brought us the golden age of international travel? Back in the day, Pan Am’s lovely stewardesses were stylish in their pillbox caps and white gloves, in-flight meals were inspired by Maxims of Paris, and you dressed up to fly. Wishing to expand beyond wealthy jet-setters, Pan Am ran ads showing regular Americans returning to the old world, walking down cobblestone streets, knocking on ancient doors, and being embraced by long-lost relatives. The ad touched people, and decades later, it comes to mind.

A neighbor recently told of a trip to his family’s ancestral village in Wales, of word traveling through the town of his visit, and of unknown relatives streaming to meet him. He was just about to leave on another trip, this one to Ireland, home of his wife’s family. We’re strongly drawn to our roots, aren’t we?

A son once invited the Beautiful Wife and me on a trip of our choice. I chose to visit Belper, in England’s Derwent Valley, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. My oldest known ancestors had worked there in one of the first water-powered cotton mills, now a museum, before immigrating to America. We hiked on an ancient Roman cobblestone road, surely walked by distant ancestors. It was a memorable and meaningful trip.

Have you watched the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots?” It started in 2012 and features minor celebrities on carefully researched journeys through their ancestor’s lives. Most often, our ancestors are regular people coping with the events of their time, but if you go back enough, you’ll find royalty or unearth a long-hidden dark secret. The website Ancestry.com, the largest online source of genealogy records, claims family history research is the second most popular hobby in the U.S. There’s a family history research group led by Beth Sands at Laguna’s Susie Q called the Ancestry Club. Members, helped by Beth, meet and share the discoveries found exploring their family trees. The Ancestry Club, a.k.a. the A Club, welcomes new members.

I’m not aware of any supporting science, but because it’s so common, I suspect this interest in and affinity for our ancestors is encoded in our DNA. The past generations, in some manner, have cleverly programmed us to want to remember them and preserve the lessons of their lives. And we, perhaps unknowingly, pass this on to our descendants. Charles Darwin didn’t know of DNA, but his “On the Origin of Species,” emphasizing improvement through “survival of the fittest,” supports the idea of encoded generational learning.

If you’ve been thinking of taking a trip and decide to visit the land of your ancestors, don’t be surprised—it’s a universal instinct. There’s a term for this in the tourism industry—legacy travel. Google the term, and you’ll get a billion hits. Legacy travel is more than visiting ancestral homes; it seems part of how we are guided by those who came before us. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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