Listening to My Ancestors

Christina - Oakland, California
Entered on February 14, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I believe that our lives begin long before we are ever born, and that we are influenced by ancestors we have never met.

I inherited this belief from my mother, who inherited it from her parents, who inherited it from their parents, and so on back to … oh, sometime in the late 9th century.

How do I know this? Because my Icelandic ancestors have kept track. Put my name in an Icelandic genealogy database and the names and dates zip past, generation by generation, for over 1,0000 years.

The Icelanders are nearly fanatic genealogists. Since the settlement of Iceland in 874, they’ve recorded the lives of those who came before. First orally, and then in books, and now in databases.

Here in America, it’s easy to discount the influence of our family histories, convince ourselves that each generation is born anew, free to shed the baggage of the past and reinvent ourselves into whatever we please.

Yet I believe that, like it or not, we are all shaped at least in some small way by the lives – and life decisions – of our ancestors.

In my case, a volcanic eruption triggered a massive Icelandic emigration in the 19th century. In one family of six children, three fled the devastation for the New World and three stayed behind. I come from one of the brothers who decided to leave. But what if I’d descended, instead, from one who made the decision to remain in Iceland?

I went through the first part of my life without giving my ancestors much thought. My mother would tell me about the traditional Icelandic culture that revered the literary arts, how among my ancestors were several writers and poets. I never paid much attention. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I started to listen to the voices of my ancestors, and when I did, it changed the very course of my life.

It began with reading my grandfather’s memoir for the first time, his brief account of emigrating from Iceland after the volcanic eruption. I was enthralled: I was listening, for the first time in my life, to the voice of the grandfather who had died long before I was born. Soon I was reading our vast store of family letters, memoirs, and diaries.

Amidst this flood of ancestral voices, the idea for a novel began to form in my mind, about a young American woman of Icelandic descent unraveling a family mystery that takes her deep into Iceland itself. I spent the next eight years of my life researching and writing it. All under the influence of my ancestors.

And although my mother died before I finished my book, I can still hear her voice telling me, “Writing is in your blood.” Now I’m finally starting to believe it.