Sometimes events happen in life that forces us to remember. We go about our busy lives – taking kids to soccer and football, or picking up grandchildren (depending on your phase of life) and trying to fit exercise into our schedule and then bam! Something happens and we are forced into remembering our ancestors – those who have gone before us or even those we have had lifelong relationships that have passed. That happened to me this week.
When my mom called to tell me my Aunt Linda had passed away I wasn’t surprised. She really hasn’t been with us for several years. Her mind has been trapped by dementia and the lively, kind sometimes sassy aunt I adored just wasn’t herself for so very long. But at the news of her passing I was surprised by the sadness I felt, but also the happiness as my memories of her came flooding back. I talked to my husband about it, who hadn’t really known my aunt when she was healthy, I talked to my kids, because they knew how much I loved her, but the true remembering didn’t come until I talked to my sister. We talked for a long time about close experiences we each had with her and how thankful we were for parents who gave us opportunities to love our aunts and uncles even though we love and miss them when they are gone. But the most important part of our talk was, you guessed it, the remembering.
For the past few nights since her death, as I’ve tried to find sleep I remember her. The way she smelled (of some kind of floral lotion she wore), the way she looked (always beautiful – perfect makeup and hair) and the way she sounded (she was from Texas and her southern drawl was both appealing and comforting.) She could shop like no other and put on a “supper” spread that would make anyone hungry. Those memories are sweet to me and I feel the need to capture them. But remembering her late at night isn’t enough. I need to document her life – remember her with purpose. How? Write it down! Journal it! Record her life story somewhere so other people can enjoy it. That is the true power in remembering.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to teach our children to remember who they are. (Read it here.) But why is it important for adults to remember our family history and stories? I have a few ideas.
I have done quite a bit of research as to why telling our children their family stories gives them confidence and it only makes sense it does the same for us as adults. How many of your great-grandparents can you name? Do you know a story for each? Discovering those stories can be somewhat of a miracle in our lives. The other day my husband made a huge discovery with his family history, finding an ancestor that fought in the Revolutionary War directly with George Washington. Wow! No matter how distant that relative is, how can you not feel good about yourself knowing someone with your blood rubbed elbows with George Washington? Professional genealogist, Jacqueline Kirk, said she got “hooked” on genealogy when she found a census record from the UK 1901 census. She learned new skills and found she had a talent for the work. “When my husband died family history gave me an escape from grief. I have made so many friends in the family history world and at a time when my confidence was low family history research restored my self-esteem. I owe it a lot,” she said.
It seems the confidence that comes from remembering is two-pronged: Yes, finding family stories takes time and energy, but once a project is completed it is something to be proud of. That gives us confidence. Also, learning the amazing stories of our families can fortify us to combat hard things. The video below by Sheri Dew speaks to that point.
At RootsTech this past year one of the quotes that stood out to me the most came from FamilySearch CEO, Steve Rockwood: “Everyone deserves to be remembered.” As he said it you could hear a collective intake of breath around the room. Such a simple thought, but so profound. Yes, everyone does deserve to be remembered. I was working on a project earlier this year trying to piece some sort of story together from a gentleman’s family during Civil War times. As I was looking at the lists of names and dates a semblance of a life well-lived started to come together. Until that project, he was a name on a census. With some diligent digging, he emerged as a Civil War Veteran who traveled back and forth between his home and the battlefield. He was remembered. And he more than deserved it.
Family historian, Liz Gauffreau, started researching her maternal grandmother’s education after being inspired by a photograph of her university days during World War I. Now she feels a kinship to her that she didn’t have when she was alive. “What means the most to me is that I’ve been able to show this side of her through my blog. She was such a private person that the family sold her short,” she said. She deserved to be remembered and Liz did it right.
It’s no secret that remembering brings us closer to our relatives who have gone before, but what about those still alive? About 20 years ago my husband and I did a project where we interviewed every family member on my mother’s side from my grandma and grandpa right down to my youngest cousin. We had dozens of videotapes chronicling all the memories shared. Last year we digitized them and shared them on our family Facebook page just a week before our family reunion. The reaction was something special. My cousin Chris Ellis wrote, “I love this so much. Thank you, Matt and Rachel, for this. It is really emotional for me to hear Grandpa and Grandma voices and the stories. That is shorthand for it made me cry… and laugh, and made me happy.” His was one of many echoing the same sentiment. Our family had this moment of closeness because we all remembered together.
I think for many of us who remember our ancestors through genealogy or story writing we feel a tug of the divine as we do the work. I am a firm believer those ancestors are close by helping us find their dates and their stories. That spark keeps us going in the work and we feel a sense of closeness that is hard to describe to others until we experience it ourselves. The phrase “angels among us” comes to mind. My writing partner, Rhonda Lauritzen, had one of those moments and writes about it in detail here. She talked about waking with a start at 3 a.m. Instead of lying awake in bed, she decided to get up and do some work. She started to peruse the Utah Genealogical Society newsletter and ran across a story that loosely related to an ancestor’s story she and her brother had spoken about the day before. She emailed it to him with a quick note: “I thought I’d forward in light of our conversation yesterday.’ A few hours later, Matthew emails me back and says, ‘Very Interesting, Rhonda. Look at the last full paragraph on page two. The Indian girl, Waddie, is the exact girl I was reading about and mentioned to you.’” Rhonda said,
“The hairs on my arm prickle, as though I was awakened at 3 a.m. to find this story. As though the story wants to be known.”
Rhonda wondered if the Native American woman in the story, Nellie Leithead Justet, wanted to be remembered.
As adults, although we don’t always like to admit it out loud, we feel a little lost at times. We wonder what our purpose is or if we are doing it right. My oldest child is 23 and I am still waiting to feel like a “grown-up” myself! Remembering our family gives us purpose and helps us understand who we are.
Diane Lund belongs to the Geneablogger’s Tribe and found an interesting sense of belonging in doing some family history research.
“I started researching after I found a purple velvet cover photo album with photos from the mid 19th century. It belonged to my grandmother. I only recognized a couple of people, so I started to look for any writing or clues in the photos. There were a few pictures that were taken in Rome – odd, since my grandmother was from Pennsylvania. My brother was able to identify the photographer was the official Vatican photographer. One of the photos was my great grandmother’s brother, John, who was sent to Rome to study and who became a Catholic priest. I found the marriage record for my great grandparents, Ida and Charles, and Fr. John was the officiant. It means a little more to me because my uncle was a Catholic priest and was the officiant at my parents’ and my sister’s wedding and my brother is a Catholic priest and he was the officiant at my wedding.”
For Diane and so many others, finding a link or connection to an ancestor we have something in common with gives us a greater sense of self. Seeing old photos and seeing family resemblances is only the beginning of the commonalities that link our families together. DNA is helping people make breakthrough discoveries about themselves and others. I loved what renowned DNA expert CeCe Moore had to say at RootsTech in 2017. In her keynote address, CeCe noted that DNA helps human beings connect – something we all long for. “It’s providing answers to hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions of people,” she said. One of the most important things she’s learned is how strong biological bonds are. She doesn’t want to push aside nurturing, but has found that our ancestors live on through us and that nature has a “profound effect on who we are.” DNA helps genealogists find out everything they can, not just what appears on a chart. Read more about DNA and connections here.
I was talking to my aunt recently about why she loves family history and she said, “I feel like I’m an investigator putting together an important puzzle.” And she’s right. Family history and trying to find the stories so we can remember keeps us thinking and keeps our minds sharp. Remembering isn’t about living in the past it’s about giving meaning to lives well-lived so we can have one of those well-lived lives ourselves. Unlocking and discovering our ancestors keeps us on our toes in a new and interesting way. Last summer I was looking for some photos of my great-grandmother on FamilySearch. I was shocked to find a large downloaded history that I didn’t know existed. After all, only my grandfather and his descendants knew the history, right? Wrong. This relative wrote these words: “I hope that someone will come along that has the talent of writing to write this better than I can. For now here is the history.” I believe she wrote those words for me over 20 years ago. Now I need to get to work to write the history into story form. I’m glad she was looking out for me to keep my mind sharp and help me to remember.
I hope that one day I will be that helpful for someone else. We find connections to places and events through remembering family stories the provide deep and abiding spiritual and personal connections. The hard life stories of our ancestors make us stronger as well. Please enjoy a few related to articles to the place, history and overcoming obstacles that make remembering all the more important.
At the end of all the remembering it does us no good if we don’t either record it orally or write it down. One of the best things that can be done is to create a story that can be cherished for generations. Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.
Whatever way you enjoy uncovering the family history and telling family stories, the key is to do it now and it will be enough. Pick a category of family history to work on and get started. We would love to hear your feedback on why you love to remember! Please share a few ideas and stories of your own remembering journey!
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.
A few years ago, after writing the first of a series of children’s books on family history and genealogy, I found a library in Houston, Texas that had a lock-in entitled “Genealogy in our Jammies.” I fell in love with this term because of the picture it represented.
Now, maybe you don’t want to go parading around in your pjs while doing research, but actually, it could be fun! This is the season, after all, to go and get those great matching jammies for Christmas morning.
Background first, right? Well, as a teacher, I participated in many a “Family Nights” through the schools. These were always exciting, engaging nights where everyone worked together on common tasks and celebrated at their attempts and successes in various academic activities. These were exhilarating and exciting events that everyone enjoyed.
That’s when the idea was born. Why not have Family Events for genealogy? Lock-ins seem to be the norm now with various associations around the country, but I never see anything about family events where the children are invited to participate. Having seen family events in action and having planned many myself, I found this a wonderful idea to bring in younger family members into the “fold,” so to speak, where they would become acclimated to doing actual family history research. Having worked on several such events, I know just how great they can be.
This is easily done and an exciting prospect for families longing to engage their children in such worthwhile events. Whenever families come together in this nature, it is beneficial to all.
If this interest you, I’ll be working on my genealogy and glad to help!
Talk to living relatives
Encourage children to talk to their living relatives, especially the older ones. Hearing stories about what life was like in the past helps young people connect to the past. This connection brings generations together and establishes strong family bonds.
Children and teenagers can interview relatives and record the interviews on a video- or audiotape.
Tell stories about your life and the lives of your ancestors. Young people need more than facts and dates. They need the facts and dates packaged in interesting, meaningful, and memorable ways. The best way to create an interest in family history is by telling young people stories about real people. Fill your stories with interesting information, humorous details, and unusual facts that will capture a young imagination. Sharing family stories doesn’t have to be a big event; make it a common occurrence around the dinner table, in the car, or at bedtime.
Share heirlooms and photographs
Holding something that once belonged to an ancestor can be a powerful experience. Pictures and heirlooms make the past come alive. Children especially enjoy photographs that show how clothing and hairstyles have changed over the years. Keep photographs and family heirlooms around your home, so children are constantly reminded of their heritage. Tell stories and histories about the item and its owner.
Attend family reunions
Family reunions are a good way for different generations and branches of a family to come together. A family reunion gives young people an opportunity to know relatives they might not otherwise meet. It gives them a chance to create experiences and memories that can last a lifetime. Help children and youth understand how they are related to each person they meet. For example, you might say, “This is your great-aunt Phyllis. She is your grandma’s older sister.”
Go on family history field trips
Children of all ages enjoy field trips. A family history field trip could be across the country or just down the street. Visit places your ancestors lived or worked. Visit graveyards. Go to museums or living history exhibits, such as a historically re-created village or a historical farm that shows how your ancestors lived. Celebrate your family’s ethnic heritage at a cultural festival. Use an Internet search engine to help you find festivals and living history exhibits in your area. Above all, make these trips fun for the children.
Play family history games
Games are a good way to make family history fun. Family history board games are available for purchase, but you can also make up games that are specific to your family. It’s easy to create a trivia or matching game or adapt a common game such as Bingo. Your children could even help make up the game. For examples of family games and instructions on how to create them, see Appendix A of this lesson.
Music and movies from the past are another way to reach young people. Share music from different eras, and teach children some of the dances their grandparents used to dance. Children enjoy learning the old songs their great-grandparents used to sing. Watch movies that were popular during the lifetime of an ancestor or that portray a certain period in history. Children are often amazed to see some of the old silent movies that were popular in the past.
Celebrate with food
Food is an important part of holidays and family gatherings, and it was the same for our ancestors. Make your grandmother’s apple pie recipe or your father’s famous meatloaf for your children. Food from different countries where your ancestors lived can provide an interesting variation on your normal diet. International recipes are available on the Internet and in many cookbooks. You can prepare pastries from France or kimchi from Korea for a special family history meal. Visit http://www.cyndislist.com/recipes.htm for a list of Web sites that can help you.
Create personal histories
Help children and teenagers create their own personal histories. They could keep a journal, create a scrapbook, or write stories from their lives. Give them a camera or help them take pictures of events and save those photographs in an album. For a list of Web sites that may help you, go to http://www.cyndislist.com/photos.htm or www.cyndislist.com/scrapbooks.htm.
Tie family history into school work
Make the connection between what children learn in school and their family history. For example, if a child is studying a historical event, tell what an ancestor did who witnessed or participated in that event. Look on the Internet for information about what life was like during that time period and how wars and other events affected daily life. If a teenager studies a book for school, tell about ancestors who lived at the same time as the author or who may have experienced some of the events described in the book. Help students learn about geography by looking at a map to see where ancestors lived. If children need to choose a state or country for a report, suggest that they choose a place where your ancestors lived. If you have photographs of the area your family came from, you can use those photographs to augment your child’s studies.
|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?
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.
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.
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.