I remember the very day I first became interested in family history. I was 16 years old – just a sophomore in high school.
I remember I was visiting my great-great aunt Betts with my mother. We had gone over to her tiny house to help her with something. And while I don’t remember the exact details, something happened that day that hooked me. I remember finding old photos in her living room. I remember Betts telling me about her father – my great-great grandfather – and the next thing I remember was the drive home, asking my mother: who was who, how are we related, and what were they like?
And from then on, I became the family historian. I collected photos. I collected stories. I interviewed family members. I wrote to libraries for information. I searched the Internet for family records. And before long, my great uncle was coming to me with questions about the family history. Me! The teenage family historian… who never let it go.
And Now, Today…
Today, I am a 30-something married mother of three children. I am still the family historian. My house is full of old books, photo albums, and family heirlooms. But more importantly, my mind is full of names, faces, stories. Stories that I have resolved to pass on down the family line – so my ancestors and relatives are remembered, their memories cherished.
And all of this is because I started my family history endeavors when I was young. This is why I am so passionate about sharing family history with youth. Yes, simply this, again: so that our ancestors and relatives are remembered, their memories cherished.
So, why is it so important we share our family history with young people?
1. Knowing Elders’ Stories
When family history work is begun when one is a child or a teen, they have the opportunity to speak with many more of their elders than they would have had they waited until they were older. I have met so many family historians over the years that so wish they had begun when they were young. I know for myself, that I am so grateful I started when I did at age 16 – I have been able to speak with countless elders in my family. Even so, had I started just two years before, I would have been able to talk with my paternal grandfather before he passed away, and still today his past and his family remain one of my greatest mysteries. So beginning when elders are still living is one of the greatest benefits and blessings of starting to research family history when young.
2. Passing Down Stories
Not only do the young benefit from knowing their elders, but elders benefit as well. Too many older people in our culture are shut off by youth, even their own grandchildren. The elderly are not as respected and revered by youth in our culture as they should be – and therefore, the sad truth is that so many of their stories are lost in time once they pass away. Youth that are interested in learning their family history and listening to the stories of their elders are one of the greatest gifts they can give them – the joy of sharing lives, and the knowledge that they won’t be forgotten… that they and their stories matter.
3. Being A Part of a Larger Story
I remember well when we learned about World War II in U.S. History class my junior year of high school. Our teacher gave us an assignment to interview someone who lived through the war, and I chose my grandmother. She told me her story and her memories of that time. And to know that I was a part of her, and that she was a part of that crucial part of history, meant that I was a part of history and the larger story. I’ve been able to take this a step further as I have researched over the years: I know that my family has played a large part in the history of the state of Indiana, the city of Indianapolis, that I have ancestors that faced incredible odds in their lives, such as my Irish ancestors who came to America during the Potato Famine… and on and on. I know I am a descendant of stories. I am a part of the larger story of human history. I know I belong.
Sharing the Stories with our own Children
Now that I am a mother myself, I know how important it is that I share our family history with my children. My kids spend quality time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family. They have had the privilege to know two of their great-grandfathers before they passed on, as well as their great-grandmother who is with us still. I have had the opportunity to encourage my oldest, my daughter Ellie, who is now ten, to ask many of her elders questions about their lives, what it was like growing up, and to listen to their stories. Now one of her favorite things to ask of her dad and I is, “Tell me a sibling story!” She knows that family stories are valuable – and often funny, too!
A few years ago, we took a trip with our kids to visit my husband’s grandparents with the purpose of listening to their life stories. I describe our visit in this post at The In-Depth Genealogist. My two older children also got to know my own grandfather before he passed on just this past June – “Great-Papaw”, as Ellie called him, was affectionate and funny, and I know that she will remember this about him, as well as some of his stories.
And you know, even if the life stories and photo tags of some of your elders have eluded your grasp because you got started in family history late in life, all is not lost. I knew my other two grandparents well, even if I never got to interview them about family history. I knew my Grandma Lutz loved to take me to the salon, and that she had a little living room library for my sister and I. I knew my Papaw Andrews loved to read my sister and I a special book about horses. I learned about their family history later on from those close to them – but I still knew them in the way a child does.
So, what are your memories of your elders from when you were young? What can you share about them with your children? How can you foster a love of family history in your children today?
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