Embrace the ‘story’ in family history

I don’t exactly have the firmest grasp on my genealogy. My parents are second-generation Americans and never really regaled my brother and me with the stories of our ancestors. My grandparents seldom mentioned their parents when we went to visit them.

I was able to trace my heritage to Depression-era New York using my grandmother’s percussive Brooklynese accent. But I was somehow under the impression that I was Russian until recently, when the topic came up in a phone conversation with my mother, and she kindly interjected, “Honey, we’re actually not Russian.” We’re actually a whole blend of things – Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish – though I don’t know who is from where.

Growing up in the homogeny of the North Shore Chicago suburbs, lineage was not a common topic of discussion. Everyone looked pretty much the same. In school, the most international we got was butchering the beautiful, lilting Spanish language with our harsh Midwestern twang.

However, attending a college in Miami, a city so culturally rich and ethnically diverse, caused the concept of lineage to resurface in my thoughts. Since coming to this university, I’ve befriended people with roots from all over the globe, from Cuba to India to Japan to Iran, and have loved learning about each distinct background.

I started to wonder what my story was. I decided it was time I take the initiative to uncover my familial past and take one of those genealogy tests that have become all the rage as of late.

My zeal soon wore off upon discovering it would cost $100. I passed on the pricey kit but I was still determined to find an inlet into my family history.

I remembered that when my paternal grandfather was young, he decided to change his last name from Mernyk to Munro. In America, the name is typically spelled M-O-N-R-O-E, but my grandfather decided to name us after British writer H.H. Munro, more commonly referred to as “Saki.” Being someone who enjoys writing, I always loved the idea of being named after a famous writer, but he was never someone we discussed much at home.

I thought, perhaps, that H.H. Munro could be the link to my past: A window into the mind of the grandfather whom I never got to meet but knew was beloved and admired. My father often told me of his creativity, work ethic, kindness and natural aptitude for anything he decided to try his hand at.

When I researched H.H. Munro, I was stunned by my findings. He was born on Dec. 18. I was born on Dec. 8. He began his writing career as a journalist in London. I hope to someday be a journalist in another big city, Chicago.

One of his greatest influences was Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” one of my favorite childhood books. In fact, I was so vocal about my love for it that a friend once made me a hat entirely out of playing cards just like the one in Wonderland.

Munro himself has been cited as an inspiration for the author of “Winnie the Pooh,” A.A. Milne, an author to whom I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated, whose heartfelt words I used as my senior quote in my high school yearbook.

Munro is often credited with infusing wit and subtle mocking into his stories. He would poke fun at high-class Edwardian society in his works, finding its customs somewhat imposed and disingenuous. One of my favorite topics to write about is millennial culture and its superficial and contrived nature.

I couldn’t believe I’d grown up so parallel to my namesake. I felt I had gained a transcendent understanding of who my grandfather was and what he valued in naming us after this figure.

Yes, DNA and concrete genealogy are vital to understanding where we come from and who we are. But there are countless ways to connect to our family history beyond 23 and Me: a photo album, a grandmother’s story, old baby shoes, military dog tags.

History isn’t just names and dates and wars; it’s the stories of our ancestors who are, in a way, former iterations of us. History is our stories. It’s the little things, too – mistakes and surprises and discoveries, and sometimes something as simple as a name can be the most powerful tool to animate your family tree and understand where you came from, and the legacy that you – whether you know it or not – carry out every day.

Dana Munro is a sophomore majoring in musical theater. Glass Half Full runs every Tuesday.