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Chronicling the Ups AND the Downs in Family History

Originally posted: https://climbingmyfamilytree.blogspot.com/2018/02/chronicling-ups-and-downs-in-family.html?spref=fb

Hani Simonowitz Schwartz, mother of my grandpa, Tivador “Teddy” Schwartz

After reading this article from Time, about why adults shouldn’t shield children from sadness, I decided to write about why family historians owe it to future generations to document both the ups and downs of the past.Of course we love to trumpet the many success stories (like hubby’s great uncles, the famous bandmaster Slatter brothers in Canada). And it’s fun to tell younger relatives about the family traditions that we ourselves remember so fondly (like singing the Farkas Family Tree anthem at family meetings when I was a tot).But every family also has sorrow, struggles, and losses in its history. We may have witnessed grief following a loved one’s death or we may have learned about sad or despicable family events from relatives or newspaper articles or other sources.

As genealogists, we owe it to our descendants and relatives to honestly chronicle the lives of our ancestors, both good and bad. It’s vital to show younger relatives what formed our family, let them begin to learn about the range of life experiences, and reassure them of the shared strength of our family.

Research shows that children actually benefit from understanding the difficulties faced by ancestors and relatives–and come to believe they can overcome obstacles themselves. Stories are a safe way to begin the learning process, portray ancestors as real people with real lives, and put the past into context for younger folks.

I’ve written about my husband’s great-grandma Mary Shehen Slatter (1837-1889), and her truly heartbreaking tale of being confined in two notorious insane asylums due to a diagnosis of being “melancholy and demented.” The cause of her insanity, according to the asylum records, was “misfortune and destitution.” She was, it seems, driven insane by poverty and despair. And her children were placed in a workhouse while she was institutionalized.

BUT when I tell their story to my grandchildren, I remind them (with genuine admiration) that Mary’s children all went on to live very productive lives. Mary was the mother of the three bandmaster brothers who built brilliant careers and were pillars of their communities, as well as being good family men. If only Mary could have known! Once I found out about Mary’s sad life and death (from tuberculosis), I made it my mission to be sure her descendants are aware of the bad and the good in that branch of the family tree.

Another example: In researching my mother’s family, no one ever mentioned the many relatives who stayed behind in Hungary when my grandpa Teddy Schwartz (1887-1965) left for America, bringing his brother Sam and sister Mary to New York within a few years after he arrived. All his life, Teddy kept one photo of his mother, Hani Simonowitz Schwartz (see image at top). It must have been painful for him to look back and think about his parents and other relatives he would never see again.

Only through Yad Vashem did I find out that grandpa Teddy actually had many more terrible losses to mourn. I was shocked and dismayed to discover that his other siblings (and their families) were all killed in the Holocaust, his niece being the only survivor. No mention of this tragedy in the family tree minutes, no family stories passed down.

In my mind, I believe the heartache of these losses was why my grandpa Teddy was so insistent that the family observe a moment of silence annually for all the relatives who had passed away in the previous year. That yearly moment of silence–initiated by Teddy and led by him year after year–were recorded regularly in the family tree minutes. Clearly, Teddy believed it was important for the family to at least acknowledge the downs as well as the ups in life.

I agree with my grandpa. Let’s make the family aware of the downs, not just the ups. Do we have to publicly disclose everything negative in the tree? No. In fact, there are a couple of stories that I’ve written for my files only, and mentioned orally but not documented for distribution to the entire family, out of respect for living descendants. (These stories have nothing to do with secrets like “non-parental events,” by the way.)

Notice that I’m putting the full stories in my files, to be passed to my heirs after I join my ancestors. The stories won’t be lost, and at some point, the historian of the next generation may judge that the time is right to say more to more people.

What do you do with the negative stories you uncover in your tree?

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How Telling Women’s Stories Shapes Generations and Builds Resilience

March 19, 2018 by Alexandra Madhavan

Growing up, I always enjoyed a good story. I devoured any book that I could get a hold of – on any subject. Yet, nothing was as interesting to me as my own family history. Families in themselves are naturally dysfunctional – intricate mosaics filled with many eccentric characters. Tales of people coming from distant lands. Tales of people succeeding against all odds. A beautiful mix of tragedies and triumphs, and everything in between.

How Telling Women's Stories Shapes Generations and Builds Resilience | Multicultural Kid Blogs

Growing Up With Strong Women

One thing that stands out ever so brightly, is the intense strength of the women in my family. The story of my maternal grandmother, who fled a war-torn country for a better life. Leaving her family dead and buried. Falling in love, giving birth to my mom, and then dying in a fatal car crash 2 weeks later – leaving my mother as an orphaned newborn. My mother, who grew up living off of a small room behind a diner, parent-less, with an uncle in jail – she became a successful businesswoman in her late thirties, by chance. A combination of luck, hard work, street smarts, and constant reinvention. The story of my paternal grandmother, who came from a poor farming family and was the first one ever in her family to go to university. She was one of the first four women to obtain her Master’s degree and ended up working for the Prime Minister of Canada.

I don’t think I would be who I am today if it weren’t for those stories that I grew up with. For me, it provided a strong foundation for my identity – a foundation that served as a launchpad for me to spread my wings and fly. Their stories are a part of my DNA, and it’s one of the most important things that I’m going to pass on to my kids.

How Telling Women's Stories Shapes Generations and Builds Resilience | Multicultural Kid Blogs

The Importance of Women’s Narratives

Women’s narratives are often overlooked, underappreciated, and undermined. Women often bear the silent workload, the unseen labor. Women carry the hopes of generations on their backs, with the hope that things will be better for their kids. While women’s stories in the media are often one dimensional, women’s stories that are handed down through family are rich and complex. That’s why it’s so important to pass these narratives on to your children.

Hearing familial stories instills children with empathy, connection, and compassion. In fact, a study from Emory University concluded that knowing one’s own family history showed higher levels of emotional well-being, identity, and achievement in adolescents.

It also helps children build resilience. By hearing how many difficulties your ancestors had to face, it teaches children to get back up whenever they fall. By hearing about relatives that had to overcome massive obstacles, it shows kids that you can conquer any hurdle that comes your way. That life is a continual effort of rebuilding yourself, filled with many ups and downs. It also builds confidence and inspires bravery in kids – kids will think, “look what grandma had to overcome. I can do it too.”

It also passes down sets of values and beliefs through lessons learned in time. It’s especially important to preserve these stories if you immigrate from one place to another.

Kids are naturally curious and you can start to tell them simplified versions as soon as they start asking questions. And as they get older, tell them in more detail so that the richness of your family’s history unfolds as they grow to discover it. You can start the conversation by saying to your child, “you know, your great grandpa used to draw maps…” or something along those lines.

Family stories can be written down or spoken. But one thing’s for sure – they demand to be told. There is power and strength in each of our family stories and, most importantly, they empower our children.