#90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories; write these down and share them

IDEA #90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories. Write them down in “nice” form and give copies to other family members.

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant or interesting pastime than this activity. All families have stories, short, long, funny, sad. Too often, these stories are only told as half-remembered anecdotes at wakes and funerals, when the actual participants and original tellers are no longer around to give them context, richness, detail, and meaning.

A number regional and national projects currently exist for the purpose of collecting family narratives, and some, like Storycorps, even go so far as to provide equipment so that the stories can become part of the rich fabric of American oral history. For families who can take part in such projects, the satisfaction of participation must be enormous, and their addition to the national treasury of memory rewarding in all respects.

But such work can begin on a much smaller, more personal scale. A child of almost any literate age can sit at the feet of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle and take down an anecdote or short reminiscence; computers and smartphones can also be used to record video or even just audio for later editing and transcription. Perhaps with the editorial guidance of an older hand, this narrative can be transcribed and improved into a final draft and then bound or even framed accordingly. (We would warrant that there would be some photocopies made and sent around to other family members before that final version went between covers or under glass.)

The child who begins to focus on the nature of his or her family stories will, if nothing else, connect more deeply with those who tell them. In time, perhaps, the child will even take on the responsibility of family archivist or griot. One imagines that more than a few professional authors began in just this way, and the family reminiscence is a structure that has served many novelists well.

And think of the appreciation from other members of the family, including the teller.

#83. Trace your family history back as far as you can

IDEA #83. Trace your family history back as far as you can. Ask relatives for help; go on line; try a library.

For some children this will be much harder than for others, but all the basic resources needed are a family member or two and perhaps access to a good public library or Internet database. This activity is a wonderful way for children to understand the nature of their own lineage as well as the influence of real historical forces on their own forebears.

For a fortunate few, primarily of English or Northern European heritage, there exists a body of written documentation that may even includes published family histories. Beyond that, however, lies a wealth of genealogical resources and, more important, individuals with genealogical obsessions. A local library or historical society might be able to point the child (or the family) in the direction of people who will happily undertake specific research and whose interest in these matters is deep and whose knowledge is broad. Their guidance or assistance may help the child to locate marriage, birth, immigration, property, and death records, but it may suffice for the child to rely on the oral testimony of family members to construct a limited family tree that at least explains the child’s place in the cosmos.

For some children—adoptees, unaccompanied refugee minors, or others whose family records are hidden or have been obliterated by history—this activity could be much more challenging, and even potentially painful. Much adult guidance is called for in these cases, where it is even possible to run afoul of the law (with regard to statutes covering access to adoption records, for example). And as Alex Haley’s Roots project demonstrated many years ago, discovering the details of the heritage of those who came to America not by choice but by force can be extremely difficult, although resources to assist research in this area are more extensive now than they were thirty years ago.

One sees advertisements frequently these days for internet genealogical resources, which sometimes come with high subscription prices and that therefore should not be accessed without adult permission and supervision. These can be helpful for an investigating child or adult with an abiding interest and sufficient resources to cover the cost.

But at some point most children will express a desire to learn more about their lineage and family history, and this is not infrequently the subject of school projects. Whatever the amount of information to be found, the object of the exercise is to help the child in the development of a positive personal heritage and identity.

It can be very interesting to a child to establish that this heritage shows the influences of history—most people’s forebears have been part of one or another of history’s large-scale migrations—and of the cultures from, through, and into which they have passed. Even if specific information or evidence is scarce, sometimes family lore can also be a powerful thing in a child’s life.

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