That south wall, of the former Uhl home in North Carolina.

The Uhl family in San Diego.Editor’s Note: Since June 2009, we at WVFC have had the good fortune to feature The Compass Rose, writer and editor Ainslie Jones Uhl’s chronicle of her relocation from North Carolina to California. We started yearning for her old house in View from the South Wall ,  empathized as she felt she was “living incognito,” learned to adjust to “West Coast casual,”  and rejoiced as she found a few kindred spirits. We’ve even celebrated a few holidays with her extraordinary family (above right).

Now, nearly a year later, it’s with mixed feelings that we present the very last installment of The Compass Rose. Here, Ainslie tells us that the process of relocation is over. She’s now ready to move on to other subjects in future pieces for WVFC, while still giving us glimpses of her life in Southern California.

The rich and famous aren’t the only ones whose genealogies are worth exploring. But when television turns its attention to a subject as sloggingly detailed as researching family trees, celebrities are certainly the best bait for viewers. I tuned in for every episode of the PBS series “Faces of America” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I’m a sucker for the academic credentials of a Harvard professor on public television, and as I’ve acquired the wisdom of middle age, I’ve become more intrigued with the idea of connectedness, coincidence and universal energy.

It turns out that eleven of his twelve guests had a genetic connection, a common ancestor. I swear I could see the physical resemblance between Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols. Look at them! And their gift for comedy must be part of their shared DNA.

NBC is also hopping on this train with their series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, although that particular Hollywood guest list holds less interest for me.

I believe the renewed excitement in genealogy is part of a growing trend–like the green movement or sustainable farming–that urges us to reclaim what the modern world has made us forget. As technology takes us further from daily personal contact and industry raids the family farm, we look for organic tethers that make us feel whole.

You can’t get more organic, or more personal, than birth and death.

“I found that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history,” said Dr. Gates, “we are all the same.”

Well, of course.

Grasping the familial thread, documenting the ties that bind:  I’m crazy about this stuff.  But I come from a long line of archivists, paper savers, hoarders of history. My mother and brother are authors of three bound volumes: her memoirs and a short biography of her parents, and his ancestral history climbing the family tree through hundreds of years. My father spent over a year transcribing an old family diary, adding notes and photographs and cross references. No glitz, no glamour, no television or movie deals. Just many hours of looking at marriage and birth records, visiting ancient homesteads, shuffling through old letters and photographs, and standing in line at Kinko’s.

My cousin Andrew, half a generation younger than I, turned his examination of family dynamics and multigenerational research into a newly published book, Between a Church and a Hard Place.  What began as an attempt to respond to his young children’s unanswerable questions became a way of connecting the past to the present and opening a dialogue for parents looking for clues about what to tell our children about who we are.

Dr. Gates was right; we are all the same. Human beings are bound by a hunger for connectedness, and we spend much of our lives in search of ways to feed that rumbling need. Whether it’s through genealogy or politics, creative temperament or shared tragedy, we all look to others to solve the riddle of ourselves: “Who am I and why am I here?”

These questions have intrigued me more than ever since our move, nearly two years ago, to California. In an earlier essay, “Living Incognito,” I described reveling in anonymity but anxious for a way to feel connected in this strange land. I pursued my tribe through classes and workshops, where I met as many as thirty to forty fellow writers, all of whom remained acquaintances except one.

And this is the damnedest thing. Out of the 3 million people in this sprawling county, and from a chance meeting in an obscure writers’ workshop, the one creative soul who became a friend is also an old friend of one of our old friends–our son’s godfather, in fact. Beyond our mutual understanding of the writing life, beyond our connection as wives and mothers, and despite our differences in geographical identity and upbringing, my new friend and I have an unlikely, uncanny tie. A common “ancestor.”  One degree of separation.

It’s enough to help me feel somewhat tethered to this place.  I don’t have all the answers, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned about myself so far. Satisfied enough, whole enough, to gather these essays, look on them fondly, and move on.

Start the conversation