This time of year our children spend lots of time revisiting the trials of those brave folks who landed in Plymouth.  My kids have all gone over the story too many times to recount.  Whether or not any of our family’s ancestors can be traced to that event is not clear.  But it doesn’t matter.  That episode in our national history is a kind of metaphor for all of us; Thanksgiving is a remembrance of a profound cultural event that stands independent of blood-lines.

But as we go over the tale again, and as we sit down to eat too much with our families, I wonder how often we forget just how far back our families go, and just what they would think if they saw us now.  Family memories in modern times are as short as our collective attention spans.

Of course, we store some pictures, either the way my family did (in large boxes, with vague scribbles on the back of each one), or as some more aggressive, more obsessive folks do, in committed albums with pre-printed captions and all the trimmings.  But our pictures or video-tapes don’t usually go back much more than two or three generations.

We probably do worse with stories than with images.  Someone in each of our families typically knows a few of the trials of our more illustrious ancestors.  We may learn from these archivists who survived this battle, or who perished in that epidemic.  We might know someone who knew someone who knew a president.  But the tales never go further back than one or two centuries, and are always sporadic bits of information, and even then are usually only the most fascinating events and connections in our family lines.  And the vast majority of the names and faces from whom we are descended are lost like dandelion seeds on the winds of time.

When I look at my life, and at my wife and children, and when I consider the great expanse of time, I am always amazed.  However we view this life, whether as the product of eons of evolution or as the result of God’s direct hand on Adam 5000 years ago, each of us can trace his family back beyond the bounds of imagination.  Each of us is the product of mighty efforts of survival against tremendous odds, desperate travels for food and brutal battles to escape cruelty.  Each of us sits around our Thanksgiving table with historical myopia.  We so wish we could connect ourselves to the Mayflower, when our family stories, for thousands of years, are made up of men and women whose struggles made that little trip to Massachusetts look like a Carnival Cruise.

All of us are descended from heroes and scoundrels, from slaves and kings, prostitutes and prophets.  Our DNA bears the marks of more people than we can possibly dream, whose lives were both wonderful and terrible.  And I suspect that our dreams bear some of what they left us as well.

I often imagine them when I read a story from the past, or when my wife tells me something from antiquity as she prepares to teach a Latin class.  I think of them when I watch history documentaries.  I think of them as I put my children safe in their beds.  And often, on cold nights beneath crystalline starry nights, I look up and imagine them doing the same, hoping and praying beneath stars that have changed only imperceptibly between then and now.

When I see them in my minds eye, they are resting from their labors or struggles.  They are Romans under warm Italian skies, or Britons suffering under Rome.  They are children of Mongols, or children of the Twelve Tribes.  They are women who have born children, or men plowing the ground with sticks and stones.  They are wounded, ill, heartbroken, enslaved or indentured.   But some of them are successful, ruling over others from Athens, from the snowy plains of Russia or the forests of Germany.  They live in ancient India, the Congo or along the Nile.  The may be servants of Persian kings or travelers on Arctic seas.

But they look at the stars and ask their gods to bless their children, and children’s children, and give them something better, someday.  A freedom, a hope, a blessing they do not have.  And as I sit down to pray this Thursday, I need to give thanks to God for answering their prayers before he ever heard mine.

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