Ancestors and Time


This past Sunday I spent several pleasant hours with cousins on my mother’s side of the family. We shared family stories, family pictures and had the opportunity to get to know each other, since my mother’s death so long ago created an unintended separation. I’m 12 to 15 years older than my cousins so I was able to recognize some of the people who  had passed away  and shared memories from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, before my cousins were born. We all had a wonderful time and before we knew it, it was time to go.

This past Monday and Tuesday my friend Patti Meyers helped fill in many blanks through her knowledge of She also helped me use it at the Oak Lawn Library. We traced relatives back to the 1840’s in Germany. Patti loves genealogy and my cousins and I got to benefit from her expertise. Thanks Patti.

I’ll turn 71 in a couple of weeks. Fortunately I am healthy and happy (knock on wood). My age gives me a longer term perspective on the ancestry issue because I have watched family members be born and die. I’m starting to feel the flow of life. I see how one generation is born, grows, procreates and nurtures the next one, hoping that life will be better for the newer generations. I see how life seems long when you are young, but not so long when you age. And I see in my own life how long it takes us to learn the lessons that life presents to us. We start out thinking we are well educated and know so much and end up realizing that book knowledge does not equal life knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I made some stupid mistakes in my early days, but I have no major regrets about what I’ve done with my life. Actually it looks like I now am where I am supposed to be. It is like the song, a long and winding road, but it is the process of traveling it that provides the valued learning that hopefully makes us better. And this is not my swan song, either. I’m not done yet! My grandpa Patrick McAllister lived into his late 90’s. I think I can beat his record, God willing. So I have ‘miles to go before I sleep.’

My Ancestors: Blood, Glory and Disclaimers

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Back on April 8th, Maggie and I went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Maggie wanted to see the exhibit about the Vikings. Now I hate to admit this, but I didn’t know until I saw the exhibit that many of the Vikings came from places now located in modern day Sweden. How could I have not known? I must have been asleep, or more likely daydreaming, when the subject came up in History class in grammar school. Duh!?!

The exhibit was very interesting. Sure there were spears and swords, but there were also bowls and utensils actually used by the Vikings; by the way, the utensils included knives and forks so the Vikings were not uncouth, beast-like animals who ate by hand and threw the bones on the floor when they were through. Motion pictures have polluted history!

On the other hand, the Vikings did seem to do more than their share of plundering and pillaging and many of them were pirates, attacking ships on the open sea. I guess they felt they had to live life to its fullest since most of them never saw the age of 40. Most of them never got the chance to express whatever wisdom they acquired much less nourish the ideas. Yes, I’m making excuses for them. Hey! Some of them may be kin.

Later in history they migrated to northern France (Normandy) and actually attacked the city of Paris (fighters not lovers). Then in 1066, now known as Normans, they sailed across the channel and conquered much of England. English, which was of Germanic origin, was wedded with the more Latinate version of the Normans and the English language was blessed with an influx of multi-sylabelled words. House became residence; sweat, perspiration; walk, perambulate and hug, embrace. So you see this highly active group was a linguistic blessing in disguise. The English language is better off for the rampaging efforts of the Normans. The proof of course is that English is now the lingua franca of most of the world.

Disclaimers: Some of the preceding comments may not be 100% historically accurate. Like the movies, I am embellishing for entertainment value. What do we writers call it? Ah, yes, artistic license.

Ancestors and Genealogy

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Recently I reestablished contact with second cousins on my mother’s side of the family (Bergstrom). I will be meeting with them this coming weekend to share photos and memories about our families. I think my helpful spirits are involved because this idea seemed to come to me out of thin air.

Yesterday, when I dragged out photos and other memorabilia to prepare for the meeting, I found a wealth of information I forgot I had. One of my other cousins, Jim Thomas who is now deceased, sent me information back in the 1980’s when he was on a genealogy kick. He traveled back to Sweden, visited with cousins we have there, and found lots of family records, including one which indicated my family was also related to the Finns who moved to Sweden in the 16th century. I think my helpful spirits are telling me I need to catch up on my past.

My grandfather, Josef Bergstrom, came to America in 1900. He must have returned to Sweden in 1902 because he married my grandmother, Ida, there and both of them traveled to America via ship that same year. Their first daughter was born here in 1903, later followed by four siblings, including my mother, Edith, in 1906. They lived on the south side of Chicago and that’s where Edith met Dan McAllister, my father.

They got married in 1923. I found a scrapbook my mother put together. It had pictures, with carefully written comments by my mother, depicting their honeymoon. They traveled with  married friends, Harry and Charlotte Jensen, the  for the trip because the Jensen’s owned a car and my parents did not. My mother was 20 and my father 22. Kids, that’s what they were. My mother’s written comments are sweet and lovey-dovey.

I also found substantial information, including pictures, of my Swedish relatives who remained in Sweden. I am in the process of summarizing it so I can share it with my cousins.

In former times and cultures, people would memorize the names and importance of their ancestors. Today we rely on computers and databases. I think it’s important for us to look back to our former relatives because we will appreciate them more and be thankful for what they accomplished. In my case, three of my four grandparents came directly from Europe by traveling across the Atlantic ocean, leaving behind family members they would probably never see again, in the hopes of starting a new, bertter life for themselves and their descendants, me included. God bless them!


Our Ancestors, Our DNA, Our Choice

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As with the previous blog, this information is taken from the article Annotating the Book of Life by Regina Nuzzo.

Having seen how the environment affects the annotations of the DNA in our cells, we must ask “Is our DNA affected by our choices?” Early answers seem to affirm that idea. Research on laboratory mice indicates that the DNA of mice, neglected when they were young, changes for the better when they are later placed in a nurturing environment. Follow up showed that most of the negative annotations cause by neglect were erased by the nurturing change.

A study of experienced meditators showed that their inflammation-controlling genes changed in positive ways that are thought to improve the meditators’ responses to stress. This change was accomplished by their attendance at an eight hour seminar on breathing meditation. Imagine how daily meditation is improving their lives.

While epigenetics is in its infancy, preliminary results such as these are encouraging. It suggests that, just as the behavior of our ancestors has influenced our lives today, we have the opportunity to make positive choices that will improve the genes we will pass on to succeeding generations. We’re not talking only about physical health. Our choices can affect the mental, physical and emotional health of all people who will carry our genes in the future. Of course succeeding generations will have the same choices to make, just as we do today. Still, it is up to us to make healthy choices so we are doing our part for our descendants. Granted, we can only affect our part of the world. This early evidence tells us we can make a small difference. But logic indicates that if everyone makes better choices, the world will become a better place.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”   –  Mahatma Gandhi


Our Ancestors, Our DNA, Our Environment

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The source for this blog is Annotating the Book of Life, by Regina Nuzza, as published by Time Magazine in their current Special Edition. Her article is on page 48.

Early on scientists asked the question: “If the DNA in each of our cells is the same, how come one cell becomes part of a hand and one becomes part of an ear.” They found the answer was that there are chemicals associated with the DNA that tell each cell how to develop. The chemicals are referred to as annotations. Interestingly, these chemicals can be modified by our behavior: what we eat; what we drink; what we smoke, inhale and even feel. Normally individual annotations last for only a day or two. Repeated annotations, what we could think of as habits, have a more prolonged effect. Let’s look at two examples.

One study of mice focused on male mice that had fatty diets. Mouse fathers that had early signs of diabetes produced pups more prone to diabetes themselves. The female mice the sired  had changes in pancreatic genes and had problems regulating insulin and glucose levels. It suggests the mouse fathers had epigenetic signatures in the sperm they produced.

Another study concerned the people of Holland who were alive during the winter of 1944, when the Nazis blockades cut down the food supply forcing them to eat tulip bulbs and grass; giving them an average of only 500 calories a day. Their children, who were conceived during this time had higher risks of obesity, heart disease and diabetes 660 years later, even though they were well fed after they were born.

This sounds like a negative outlook on our heredity and the vicissitudes of life but there is another side to the coin of epigenetics: improving the environment has a positive effect, through epigenetics, on our lives.

Next Blog: Our responsibility is to make the choices which are healthy for ourselves as well as our descendants.




Our Ancestors, Our DNA

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In their most recent Special edition Time Magazine has focused on “How DNA Shapes Your Life”. There are twenty articles contributed by several writers containing the latest information about DNA. One article that caught my eye was “Annotating The Book Of Life” by Regina Nuzzo on page 48. In the first paragraph Nuzzo asks, “What if DNA is not your destiny?”

Once DNA was thought to be a set road map of our lives. Scientists now realize that we can affect portions of our DNA. Nuzzo writes (page 48), “That’s right, choices you made as a teenager could reach forward in time to affect the health of still-unborn descendants, and your own biological makeup likely reflects the experiences and environment your parents and grandparents encountered long before you were a twinkling in any of their eyes.”

These ideas come from a new field in biology called epigenetics, the study of how genes are affected by outside influences. This field of study raises new questions. How can environment affect, not the structure of DNA, but the genes within the DNA structure? Do these genes change quickly or over time?  Since some of our life-style choices can affect our choice of environment, do these choices also affect genes? Taking the question a step farther, which of our other choices have an affect on gene structures? Underlying these questions is the most important question: If our choices are affecting our genes, is it logical to suggest that we are, in fact, selecting our own path along the evolutionary trail of life? Or, put another way, is this an example of how we are co-creators with God? And hidden within these questions is the question of our responsibility of choice in connection with our descendants.

Next Blog: Examples of environmental effects on genes.

Our Ancestors: Culture and Language

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I usually watch TV while I eat, a habit I picked up watching Seinfield reruns years ago. At lunch today I was skipping around the channels and stopped at FNX (First Nation Experience). There was a series of shorts on the Creative Native program. In one a woman showed how to make a ‘book’ to hold an eagle feather; the eagle feather is treasured by Native Americans. The ‘book’ would help preserve the feather between ceremonial uses. Next there was spot about using art as an expression of culture. One of the tribes represented were the Maori of Australia. There was a panel of four women who gave opinions about what name, or term, was the best to use to refer to Native Americans. As you may imagine, “Indians” was not a favorite because people who are really Indian come from India. Finally there was a program that focused on teaching young children the language of the tribe to which they belonged. One of the teachers said, “If the members of our tribe don’t know how to speak our language, how can they claim to be from our tribe?”

The Creative Native program ended and I skipped to another channel, WYCC. On this program there were children on a playground who were being interviewed. They spoke a language I never heard before. I could tell by their dress and surroundings that they lived in Europe so I watched for a while. Then a teacher was interviewed. She spoke the language too and was talking (there were subtitles) about how their language almost died out and said, “If we let out language die, we let our culture die too and we’ll soon forget the important lessons of our past.” A minute later one of the teachers spoke English and I found out that the language the children had spoken was Irish. I felt strange. My grandfather came from county Antrim in Northern Ireland. I  heard him speak Irish when I was a child, but I never learned it, neither did my father.

It was interesting to see two groups, separated by the Atlantic ocean, sharing the same concerns for their culture and language. After thinking about it I wondered, ‘Is it the language and culture they are trying to preserve or are those things symptoms of the universal feeling that we have lost something, something that would improve our lives if we could recover it?’ I don’t have an answer, but I suspect those feelings are universal worldwide, and I suspect it has to do with our existence as spiritual beings in physical bodies. What do you think?

Our Ancestors: Your Inner Fish


This blog is based on a program that aired April 9, 2014 on PBS, titled Your Inner Fish. Back in 1999, Fish Paleontologist Neil Shubin and some associates started a search that would last ten years. They wanted to find a fossil of an amphibian that would show there was a link between modern fish and Ichthyostega, a type of salamander with a skeletal structure that was ultimately related to the human skeleton. They expected the link would demonstrate how primates, including humans, were physically evolved from fish.

Since fish existed 400 million years ago, and the missing link would have evolved 40 million years after that, they would have to find rock formations that were around 360 million years old. Surprisingly, they knew of such a rock outcropping here in the U.S. The location was called Red Hill, located along a major highway in Pennsylvania. Although their search produced fossils from that timeframe, they did not find what they were looking for. They also looked in places like Ethiopia, and Nova Scotia but without success.

Finally, in July of 2000, they found what they were searching for. Unfortunately the area was located in northern Canada where there were no roads, no people, and no sources of food; plus there were polar bears. The worst news was that the area lay under a thick covering of snow in frigid temperatures most of the year. The only time they could search the area was July. So that’s what they did for four years before finding a river bed filled with the type of fossils they were looking for in 2004. That was when they uncovered a complete, intact fossil of a flat-headed fish nine feet long.

The fossil was the first fish-like amphibian that had a common bone structure with every reptile, bird, and mammal that has ever existed; including humans. And in every one of the life forms just mentioned the similarity begins at the main body, growing into a single bone, followed by two bones, followed by many bones, and finger-like or toe-like bones. The cause of this similarity is found within a single gene in our DNA. This skeletal structure is common to the feet of mice, the hands of humans and the arm and leg structures of all four-legged animals. So this 360 million year old fossil was the first of its kind to make the transition from fish to amphibian. It set the stage for a transition to a whole new set of physical characteristics that would ultimately result in mankind; you and me.

Our Ancestors: Survival


This stretch of sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall are reminders of the fact that Nature is an unconquerable force. We think our snow plows and space heaters will get us through winter until one of these storms strikes. Then we hunker down for a few days in our warm houses and watch the forecasts on TV, hoping the power won’t go out and that we bought enough milk for the duration.

I went to Walmart to pick up a few groceries this morning. I was amazed at how barren some of the shelves were. At first I wondered if they were going out of business. Then I realized that other customers had ‘raided’ the store prior to the cold and snow and that normal shipments had probably been delayed. It made me think, ‘What did our ancestors do?’

I have seen the programs on the Discovery channel about modern families living in the remote locations of Alaska. In the fall they start planning and preparing for winter. They harvest all their crops, chop as much wood as experience teaches them they will need for heating, and find ingenious ways to store food so that it stays fresh. They also do as much hunting and fishing as they can before the snow comes. And they trade and share food items with neighboring families so they all have a variety. Theirs is a difficult life but for our ancestors it was even more of an issue of life or death.

Our ancestors may have had log cabins, or tents or lived in caves. They too had to plan for the winter just as the Discovery channel families. But our ancestors had fewer tools to use and none of our technology. I’m sure they knew tricks and shortcuts we never thought of and used every one of them to help their families survive. And they relied on the other families in their tribe or social group. Everyone helped everyone else. They had to. There was no other way to survive.

Our ancestors were hardy, brave, clever and determined. If they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here today. Here’s to our ancestors!

Our Ancestors: The Olmec Teaching

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Back on July 24th I wrote a post titled “Our Ancestors: LIfe on Earth”. In it I mentioned that the Hawaiian indigenous people believe that their descendants came from the stars, specifically the Pleiades. I then connected that idea with some speculation about the age of organic life from Professor Cockell. His estimate is that all organic life began about 10 billion years ago. And since the estimated life of our planet is somewhere around 4.5 billion years, it made the possibility of our life being from elsewhere in the universe even more intriguing.

This week a friend of mine loaned me a book titled Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures, written by Felicitas D. Goodman and Nana Nauwald. The gist of the book is that ritualistic body postures, combined with rhythmic stimulation can produce changes in consciousness that enable us to experience different areas of alternate reality: healing, rebirth and divination are a few. Using the Olmec Baby posture in a workshop in 1997  helped people access the spirit world and get a picture of the philosophy of the Olmec people, a group that lived around the Gulf of Mexico about 3,800 years ago.

On page 26 the authors cite information learned from the spirits. “In ancient times”, the spirits reported, “we had our home in the stars. One day we decided to fly out into the universe. For thousands of years we circled through the universe on energy lines, until suddenly something unexpected happened: we became stranded on solid ground. This place was hot; there were many trees.” They then decided, “Here was the location where further human development should take place.” These colonists from the stars decided this was where they could live to further their spiritual development.

I find it interesting that here we have another group of indigenous people claiming that their heritage is from the stars. If both groups lived near each other it would be easy to imagine that cultural exchanges had taken place and that a belief like this had some common ground. However the Olmec people lived thousands of miles from the Hawaiians separated by the Pacific Ocean. I’m going to continue looking for other beliefs that are similar. If you know of any please let tell me, or send me your info and I’ll put your blog on my site. Thanks.

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