Ancestors and Time

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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 Ancestry.com. 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.’

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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?

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