The most boring classes and books about history are the ones that only list the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” of an era. Without the “why” or “how,” the information is virtually meaningless. Eyes glaze over and lifelong opinions form about how irrelevant history is.
It’s exactly the same for families. A family tree that goes back 10 generations but just lists name after name after name will hold a 14-year-old’s attention for exactly a Nano second. “That’s cool,” she will say politely, on her way right past it. But, if you take those same names and dates, add faces, occupations, origins and destinations, now she will stop long enough to discover what Grandma looked like when she was 14. Now this young woman is hooked. And, as she scans, what is now, her family history on this poster she will also find short, compelling stories that keep her engaged. She will see a picture of the steam ship her great great grandfather took to come to America. Next to it a photo of the passenger list, showing he was in steerage and had only $10 to his name. She finds her great great grandmother with beautiful thick brown braided hair that must have taken an hour to arrange on top of her head like a crown. That’s where my hair comes from,” she says to herself, proudly. And then the universal, “Wow,” because she sees that this same great great grandmother sang in the Christiana (Oslo) Opera! “I love to sing too!” she smiles with her whole face, delighted to know she is part of something bigger than herself.
Family Tree posters, by the way, are just one of many ways to make your story visual. Albums, picture books and slide shows on DVD’s are some other examples.
Knowledge about family gives us a stronger understanding of ourselves
The more we know about our ancestors the more we know about ourselves and our family. It can explain an enormous amount of past and current family dynamics – good and bad. For instance, it took me 25 years to find all my Irish American second cousins. Like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, each new found cousin provided another critical missing fact, explanation, person, or perspective. Collectively, now we know that it is no coincidence that we and our children are drawn to education, health care and public service – a good 80 percent of our family, from today’s 20- and 30-year-olds back to their great-great-great grandparents, are teachers, health care providers or active in social change. It is the same for the cousins found in Ireland and Australia. On the flip side, we can follow the negative traits like alcoholism, gambling and abandonment through generations. Knowing these negative tendencies can help us inoculate against them. By collecting our medical history we can also mitigate the effects of conditions like osteoporosis, heart disease and speech disorders.
Knowledge of family gives us a sense of belonging
According to psychologists, Baumeister and Leary, there is evidence that “the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.” While a few ancestors may not make you proud, the vast majority of them will. They endured tremendous hardships and sacrificed much for us. My Sicilian grandfather came here on a ship called the Citta di Napoli in 1904. He is listed on the ship’s manifest as 19 years old and traveling alone. His name was not “Victor,” as I believed, but “Vito.” He spoke no English. He never saw his parents or sister again. He managed to go from bus boy to restaurant owner – never making much but enough to raise my father and take care of the family. He provided my father with a strong sense of heritage and basic knowledge of the Italian language. Unable to get into a U.S. medical school because of his Italian name, my father studied medicine in Rome in the 1930’s and became a beloved solo practice doc in Queens NY for 40 years. Knowing these specific facts helps me and my children want to make these ancestors proud, makes us want to belong to this family and not let them down. Every family has stories like this.
Knowing about family gives us a greater sense of identity and emotional well-being
More than just anecdotal, there is a growing body of evidence that children benefit if they know about their ancestors. One study done in 2010 found that teens who knew more stories about their extended family showed “higher levels of emotional well-being,” and also “higher levels of identity achievement even when controlling for general level of family functioning.”
The researchers used a “Do you know (DYK)” questions and scale to measure outcomes. Researchers asked 20 questions like: Do you know where your parents grew up or where they went to school?
I know from personal experience that the family members who make the effort to come to family gatherings, interact and stay in touch in between events are able to better weather the unavoidable storms we all face. A large part of that, of course, is having a support system. But this research also suggests that knowing about family history gives us personal strength through the knowledge that others in my family endured and I can too.
One genealogist, Natalie Parker, says it simply, “their lives may amuse us, inspire us, or even horrify us; but they will always educate us.
The holidays are a great time to start talking to and corresponding with relatives, especially the oldest ones, about who begat who and where and when things happened. But, most important, don’t forget to follow up with the “why” and the “how?” That’s where you will find the real answers.
Next column: How to Get Started. What’s holding you up?– By Maggie Fimia
Maggie Fimia, owner of Welcome Home Family History Services, has over 30 years’ experience doing family research and helping families tell their stories. A former registered nurse, elected official and community organizer, she is the mother of two grown daughters and lives in Edmonds with her husband, Don Moe MD.