Ties Across Time

At my folk song meetup this past weekend I had to pause in the middle of the song Kilkelly, Ireland because I was so moved. The song was “compiled” in the 1980s by American composer Peter Jones from a batch of old letters he found in his attic. The letters were from his great great grandfather in Ireland (with the help of the local schoolmaster) to his emigre son in the latter half of the 19th century. There are no particular tragedies in the song. Just the normal progression of life told through letters to someone who has gone far away but has stayed close in the writer’s memory.

Many of us can think back to grandparents or great grandparents who emigrated from their homes and never saw their families again. But letters received every few months or years kept the families close, at least for one generation.

I still have the passport from the 1920s that my grandfather used to immigrate to the US. It’s a large paper document issued in Egypt by British authorities identifying him as a citizen of Cyprus (that’s a topic for another blog about nationality, citizenship and identity), and it’s covered on the back with stamps from the different countries authorizing travel. He never returned to the land of his birth. His older brother, who had arrived in the US a decade or so earlier, traveled did, however, travel back once in order to find wives for himself and his brother. It was a different time.

But maybe not so different. As a consular officer, I’ve seen emigrants taking that life changing step to leave the land of their birth and settle in the US many times — as well as the follow up visit to find a spouse. One of the things I enjoy most about consular work is the interview in which you get a snippet of a person’s goals and dreams at a life changing moment in their lives. However, now they use a plane, and the visits back and forth are more frequent. And with email, social networks and Skype, the nature of the leaving family and friends behind has changed dramatically. We no longer need to leave anyone behind at all.

I used to smile a little condescendingly, I have to admit, at the stories of towns that included among their residents the people who had emigrated (e.g. we’re a town of 80,000 — 30,000 here and 50,000 settled abroad). After all, those who had gone were no longer part of the town. But, I was wrong, and am getting wronger by the year. Correspondence and remittances always tied emigrants to their towns of origin. And now, with virtual communities, one can have an even stronger tie to the community one left behind, and one can become part of a community that has no physical place — like this one on Govloop.

And we’re even able to recoup communities from the past. Through Ancestry.com or Ellis Island.org or Family Search.org or even online DNA tests people are developing communities based on previously unknown ancestors.

There really is a fusion between the age old longing to keep in touch with those we’ve known physically from wherever it is we call home, and to stretch the definitions of community through virtual networks and even artificial worlds like the one in Second Life where the State Department has already held briefings through avatars and where signs are we’ll have an even greater presence there. Amazing.

We are so much more bound together in this networked age, and ironically, the increased electronic networking has also increased the expectation of increased physical social visits. With communities strengthened by electronic networking, and given the ease of long distance travel (well at least compared to the 19th century), there’s an expectation that people we know electronically will come to visit sometime — or visit the land of their great-grandparents and find their roots.

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