Family History: Voices Across the Generations
Audience: Individuals Not Interested and/or Involved in Family History
“We are all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us,” (Callanan). This quote from author and University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin English professor Liam Callanan speaks of the reality of the individual, in truth we are not singular entities, but in fact are the result of many before us, our ancestors. Though long dead, these ancestors still whisper across the generations influencing the person we were, are, and can become, or as Roots author Alex Haley expressed, “in every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future (Hardy). However, in order to hear their voices, take to heart what they intone and build an interconnecting bridge across the generations; one must come to know the speaker and forge a personal connection with them. This bond is achieved by doing family history thereby allowing the individual to gain knowledge and an intimate perspective into themselves.
In order to understand the importance of being involved in family history one must first have an understanding of what family history is and what it entails. The term family history is used in many disciplines, most notably genealogical research and the medical field. Each of these fields defines family history differently, but both relate to familial connections to the past. While medical use of family history is an important reason for doing family history, as will be touched upon later, for the intents of this paper the term “family history” will relate more to the genealogical use of the term. In this sphere the term “family history” tends to be used synonymously with the term “genealogy” with genealogy slightly edging out family history due to very subtle differences between the two (Murphy). Despite this there is a distinction between genealogy and family history as articulated by the Society of Genealogists, an educational charity founded in 1911 in the United Kingdom, with the goal to “ promote, encourage and foster the study, science and knowledge of genealogy” (About). According to the society, genealogy is defined as the “establishment of a pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next” (Hints). In essence genealogy is the construction of a family tree, of which I have lost count of how many I have constructed. This field of study is mainly concerned with names, dates, and places. Although I enjoy discovering who my ancestors were and how I am related i.e. my great-grandfather, third great-uncle, myself as my cousin, trust me there are some strange things that happen, my passion lies with the broader topic of family history. Family history is defined as, “a biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived” (Hints). Quintessentially family history is an all-encompassing study of one’s ancestors thereby themselves. Although names, dates, and places are important the foremost interest of family history is the formation of a more complete, personal picture of the life story of one’s ancestors of which genealogy is only a subcategory. It is a passion for this intimate perspective that my father instilled within me as a child. My heart is softened and I feel a deeper connection with people who are not nebulous, but in fact were just as I am. My ancestors had faces smooth when young and carved deep with the passage of time, hands that held others and worked, bodies clothed in tasteful and practical garments, feet which walked and ached. They had lips that whispered, kissed, and yelled. They had jobs to do and fun to be had. They dreamed and faced the harsh realities of life. They gossiped, had their hearts broken, and saw failure and success. Through photographs, heirlooms, artifacts, oral and written stories, personal mementos, letters, diaries, recipes, personal memories, documents, traditions, historical and cultural context, these people, my ancestors become fleshed out and their stories endowed with life (Bosney, Campbell, Funda, Heiner, Rosenbluth viii, Taylor 7).
Numerous reasons abound as to why one becomes interested and subsequently involved in family history, of which GenealogyInTime magazine has compiled an extensive list. The following are some of these reasons (GenealogyInTime Magazine). Many people are first exposed to family history with the completion of a medical family history questionnaire. Tracing medical conditions across generations is extremely important for preventative medicine and individual well-being. As a result of these questionnaires and family narrative I am aware that depression, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are among the several medical conditions that tend to run in my family. Therefore I have taken precautions to guard against their development or engage in means to mitigate their effects. Medical knowledge is often acquired through family narratives, or stories. These stories, though regularly based on truth, may need validation at times, for personal curiosity or more serious reasons, such as legal issues. While it may not be important as to whether or not family stories are completely accurate, researching their validity is an easy way to forge a personal connection to the past as it creates a strong understanding of the meanings and contexts surrounding an individual. Perhaps one of the most common reasons why individuals delve into family history is the possibility of relation to either royalty or famous people. Although, this is an interesting activity and allows for the development of further interest in doing family history, it is the seemingly commonplace which provides for greater personal connection as theirs is a life of more similarity and relatability than that of the extraordinary. On my mother’s side I come through many royal families including King John of Robin Hood fame. I find this to be awesome, but I experience a deeper connection with my extremely ordinary paternal great-great grandfather Elmer, not to be confused with my lesson horse Elmer. Elmer, the grandfather, not the horse was a farmer in rural Pennsylvania and he and I share much in common including our as our love of horses, which is totally why I should own Elmer, the horse not the grandfather, just saying. Anyway similar to famous people are historical events. Historical events provide connection not only to the family’s past but also the greater historical past giving a sense of continuity and importance to bygone eras and an understanding of the prominent events responsible in part for the way the family behaved, thought, and made decisions which effect individuals today. The French and Indian War proves to be much more exciting when I consider that my paternal sixth great-grandfather came to be involved in its militaristic events and that many of my Dibert ancestors were massacred by the Native Americans who too were involved. As such I have a greater sense of appreciation for the hardships of their lives, and in turn this gives me perspective when facing my own trials. Another reason for involvement is tracing family resemblance. Many are apt to wonder whom they resemble the most. My sisters and I frequently inquire of our parents which of them we most resemble. In some cases it is a contest to discover which side of the family a child resembles the most. If you were wondering I resemble my mother’s side the most, but I do have my paternal grandfather’s hands, not his actual hands, they just resemble his. This allows me to feel a connection to my grandfather for when I look at my hands I think of his. What he did with them and what I can do with mine to make him proud. As author Gail Lumet Buckley stated, “family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them” (Buckley). Other traits are also inherited such as character traits like integrity, loyalty, or disagreeableness. These take more delving into to discover from whom they originate. It is these traits that make connecting to ancestors interesting and more personal. To my father’s pleasure I inherited critical thinking skills from his family, yet to their dismay I also inherited my paternal great-grandmother’s snippiness. Finally, family history provides a means of preserving tradition and culture which is generally passed down through families. In a world of increasing globalization and homogenization, conservation and perpetuation of unique cultures and traditions becomes an issue of great importance. Appreciation of the original importance and purpose of a particular tradition or element of culture, gained through family research, provides a personal and prodigious reason to ensure its preservation and perpetuation. Quilting in my family originally arose from practicality, as means through which women visited with others while at the same time providing protection for the family. Nowadays quilting has little practical place and thus many traditional patterns and techniques are disappearing. Because I understand the importance quilting held for my ancestors I feel a personal responsibility to be involved and ensure its continuation in my life.
Each of these reasons builds upon and unlocks the way for deeper, philosophical motivations for involvement in family history (GenealogyInTime Magazine). After preliminary research resulting from the above reasons, many begin to ponder the questions of who am I? why am I here? and where am I going? Family history is the means by which these concerns are answered. Researching and connecting to the lives of those who have gone before gives individuals a sense of belonging to an institution which has endured for an extensive period of time. As a military child my world constantly changed from one state of chaos to another, leaving me feeling lost. To mitigate this, my father constantly inundated my sisters and me with family history. This in turn, provided me with a feeling of permanency and belonging in the world despite the constant change. These feelings and connections guided my future choices and actions, imparting substantive direction in my life. When it came time for college I felt unsure as to what I should study. Knowing my ancestors were involved with agriculture practically from the dawn of time, I initially entered the agriculture program, only latter realizing that I desired to preserve that which had, and still continues to guide me, the history my family. This prompted me to change my course of study to history.
Whatever the reason or the resulting discoveries, involvement in family history produces numerous benefits as documented by Dr. Marshall Duke, PhD professor of phycology and his associate Dr. Robyn Fivush in a study conducted through Emory University Family Narratives Project (Fivush, Duke, Feiler “Stories”, Feiler “The Right Way”). In this study sixty-five families with children between the ages of twelve and sixteen participated. They were visited in their homes twice over the course of approximately three weeks, during which time the children completed packets of questionnaires regarding individual and family life along with having their family dinner conversations recorded (Fivush). The questions, dubbed the Do You Know? scale, included questions of which the children would not be able to have first-hand knowledge about, either because the event occurred before the child was born or involved family members with whom they were less familiar (Duke). As a result of this, children were required to turn to parents or grandparents for assistance in answering the questions. Upon completion of these tasks, the children were subjected to a battery of psychological tests, the results of which overwhelmingly concluded that, “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness” ( Duke, Feiler, “Stories”, Feiler “The Right Way”). To further add to these results the same children were brought back in after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and were re-evaluated and “once again, the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress” (Fieler, “Stories”). Additionally, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush concluded that individuals who knew more about their family showed, “higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties” (Duke). I have seen this in the course of my involvement in family history. Despite struggling a great deal with anxieties I feel that these are greatly diminished because I feel peace knowing others in my family also struggled and overcame along with the peace that comes from being connected to my ancestors. Additionally, I am less inclined to act out for,
If you could see your ancestors
All standing in a row,
Would you be proud of them or not?
Or don’t you really know?
But here’s another question
Which requires a different view
If you could “meet” your ancestors
Would they be proud of you? (Randall)
Despite the benefits of family history Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush caution that simply knowing about the family is not enough (Duke). Instead, it is the manner and process by which the information is acquired, through involvement and interaction.
While most people would agree that involvement in family history is beneficial, most feel it takes too much time and is too hard, or do not know how or where to start, or perhaps that it is boring, it has all been done, or that some other member of the family is working on it or will do it (Campbell 1-5). To these thoughts or feelings Jewish-American professor, political activist, and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel responds, “for the dead and the living, we must bear witness. For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories” (Elie Wiesel’s). While there are many individuals who obsess over and dedicate countless hours to the pursuit of family history, Dad I am talking about you, family history research and involvement need not be complicated nor take a substantial amount of time. Dr. Duke and author/family columnist Bruce Feiler both suggest family meals, vacations, holidays and such, be designated as times during which members of the family discuss and participate in sharing stories or information from personal memory or research (Duke, Feiler, “The Right Way”). This is exactly how my father involved me in family history. I can recall many a trip wherein the only topic of conversation was one regarding our ancestors. For those unsure of where to obtain information, numerous free online resources are available, such as familysearch.com or ancestry.com, basically Facebook for dead people. (About FamilySearch) Users can also use these resources to put them in touch with professionals once the obsession has taken over. Libraries also tend to have a section dedicated to books on the topic of family history research for which I am grateful as this is where most of the books for this essay came from. While family history can be tedious it is never boring, if it is then according to an e-image “You’re doing it wrong” (“E-image”). Mystery, intrigue, shock, maybe murder or love, you never know what you will uncover about your family and in turn yourself. As it turns out one of my ancestors revolutionized the world of spiritualism with his séances, no we have yet to contact him or others through this medium although that may prove to be quite effective. Typically there is one family member who is dubbed the family historian, but make no mistake; everyone is a family historian as they each have their own take and perspective on what the family history is or what it means. Even though my grandmother and my father are the premiere family historians in my family, I still involve myself as I find different things to be intriguing than what they do. I am interested in artifacts, historical context, and animals whereas my grandmother and father get their thrills from genealogy. All of these chosen interests fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to complete the personal picture of the family. If only one of us were involved then only part of the story would emerge and we would miss out on much of the lives our ancestors and ourselves. Some ways in which I personally do family history include collecting and identifying photographs wherein everyone appears to be so happy. Transcribing family documents, such as land deeds, who knew one could plot land according to the location of a white oak. I have also amassed and recorded a small collection of family artifacts and stories, dead horse hair blanket anyone? Pinterest is also a great resource for what I call the “I wonder” game in which I think of something, such as what clothing my great-grandmother would have worn, and then searching for it, talk about fashion. Using writing prompts like those provided by genealogist and blogger Sarah Heiner on her blog teachmegenealogy.com, I talk to and record family members’ responses, these can be quite hilarious. Learning a skill, participating in an activity, or visiting a location my ancestors would have engaged in, lived in, or better yet, where they are now interred also helps me to build a personal connection by engaging my hands and mind as our founding father Benjamin Franklin articulated, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” (Franklin). I have learned to quilt just as my grandmothers and I have visited countless cemeteries often against my will, thanks Dad. I mean who doesn’t enjoy walking on dead people? However, in all seriousness I am incredibly grateful for these experiences as they have greatly increased the personal connection I have with my ancestors and in turn I have learned about myself. All of these ideas are brilliant, but they are just some of the many ways individuals can be involved in family history, be creative, as long as one is diligently trying to be involved how can they go wrong.
Family history, the study of familial connections and the understanding that one is the result of many who have gone before, whether we like it or not. Often misunderstood or disregarded, but of which involvement in brings much personal awareness, regardless of the reason for which one initially becomes interested and involved. Most notable is the connection to the past and belonging to the present and future. If one participates one will “in the profound silences and space between your thoughts … hear the sounds of all those who came before you, whispering we love you (“Family History”). This is the reason why family history work is of utmost importance for it opens one’s ears to these loving, personal utterances of voices across the generations.
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