I love family history. No, I don’t mean endless pedigree charts of names with birth and death dates. Who cares if we’re related to Queen Elizabeth or Lizzie Borden? I mean the real history part.
I am the historian for my extended family. I collect all the anecdotes I can find--the interesting stories of who did what when and why, no matter how scandalous. Actually, I have to admit the scandalous tales are more interesting. I’ve published two books: one on my mom and her family and one for my mother-in-law. Now my brother and I are at work on a more industrious tome for our dad’s family.
In addition to locking those tales in for perpetuity, I’ve been amazed at some of interesting things I’ve discovered. Remember how boring it was to learn dates in history classes? But if you learn, for instance, that your ancestors fought in the American Revolution and the details of their involvement, that part of our country’s history becomes real to you. Reading about it goes from chore to family story. I have an autograph book from 1860-1871 that covers the time a woman in my family was at an academy for young ladies, through the Civil War, to just before her death from childbed fever eleven years later. That and learning that her husband fought in the Civil War and was at Gettysburg brought that time in focus for me.
I’m not saying your history changes who you are. Nowadays most people don’t care if your ancestors came on the Mayflower, were here to greet them, or came on an Irish coffin ship. We’re valued by the kind of person we’ve become. Sure, being born wealthy is nice—not that I’d know—but we value people for how they manage whatever talents they’ve been born with.
Here’s a challenge for you. The upcoming holidays mean family gatherings. Ask them to write as much as they know about their ancestors. Nothing formal, just start telling the stories your family passed down or those they remember. Then ask older relatives to tell you what they remember about growing up and stories their parents told.
You too have stories: funny ones and sad ones and some barely believable. But who’s going to know these wonderful stories from our family’s past if we don’t record them? That’s your challenge—preserve your past while you make your today and look forward to the future.