Collecting Stories

How did it all begin? I was not a kid who grew up hearing family stories passed down through the years or who had heirlooms throughout the house that connected to people from prior generations. I grew up in the same town that my mother did so her family was close by but we rarely saw them. My father’s mother and sister were in a state on the other side of the country so on one hand I can count the number of times I saw them. I never even saw a picture of my father’s dad until 2000. The fact that I fell in love with family history and stories is remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that once I started asking questions and expressing interest, people started sharing. People came out of the wood work to connect with me, to help me, to share what they remembered.

It all started in grade 07. In those days Home Economics and Industrial Arts were required courses for graduation – sewing, cooking, and family studies one half of the academic year and woodworking, metal shop, and drafting the other half. It was in the family studies class that I created my first family tree that would set the rest in motion.

All we had to do was go back to our grandparents on both sides of our family. I ended up placing hand-drawn images with color codes for eye and hair color, height and weight, place and date of birth/marriage/death, and any additional information I discovered. It was multiple poster boards long when it was finished. I over-achieved on the project but what it really did was ignite my curiosity. I held on to that project for years until it finally fell apart from old age.

When my father became sick I felt compelled to return to that project. I felt compelled to know and understand more. Compelled isn’t a strong enough word. I was drawn to it by something deep within me. When I look back, in the beginning I was trying to hold on as tight as I could to my dad, then I was trying to ensure he would not be forgotten, and then I finally realized I was attempting to reconnect with ancestral memories that had long been forgotten from time and neglect. None of us exists in complete independence. We are all linked by our ancestry and our place on this amazing planet. I was seeking connection to my ancestors and to the universe. This compulsion led me to uncover generations going back further than I ever imagined. It is not just about bringing back names but also their stories. I still have more people and their stories to uncover but the stories that have already emerged connect our family experiences to colonists, soldiers, immigrants, reformers, politicians, reverends, doctors, dentists, blacksmiths, farmers, and more. These are people who are connected to the events that are memorialized in the narrative of United States history as well as the history of other countries. As I have discovered their stories, I have rediscovered this history in a deeply personal way. I have become the custodian of their memories, recipes, stories, and experiences with one charge – to keep it and them alive.

I have also come to understand the importance of making the time to honor my ancestors as a means of connecting with others and the greater energies of the universe. It is about connection. Empowerment. Healing. Resolution. At various points in my life I have been drawn to the tradition of the ofrenda and with each time I have grown deeper in my understanding of it. Dating back to ancient Mesoamerica, the purpose of the ofrenda is to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones in the family, and to keep their memory and stories alive. It is a celebration of life, not death. It is joyful, not sorrowful. It is a welcoming of the spirits, a chance for them to sit and visit a while.

And so, I have uncovered more family members than I had ever hoped to find. People have been placed in my path to introduce me to long forgotten family members who I would have found through the long trail of research but whose stories I may never have heard. I would like to believe that this is because the spirits have recognized that they are welcome here. That if their stories are shared with me I will help them continue to be remembered.

Our girls are beginning to understand the importance of remembering loved ones so that they continue to live on in their new lives that come from death. Photos of our ancestors now live on a family tree in our dining room, and we are beginning to add tokens at the top of the tree that represent each of us. Our ancestors are with us at every meal, they are with us every day. I’m counting on our girls to keep the stories alive.

If you are interested in beginning to collect your family history and stories, just START:

Simply write down all the names you know, their relationship to you, and any dates you know about their lives: mother, father, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, etc.

Talk to your relatives to find out what they know and what they remember about family members. Ask about their dreams, their loves, their challenges, their victories, their strengths, their weaknesses, their joys, etc.

Audio or video record your conversations with your relatives, and make notes at the same time. This will enable you to refer back to the recordings and notes as you dig deeper into your family history and to share the recordings with future generations.

Render a family tree diagram from the information you have gathered.

Travel to places you know where your family members lived – this may be visiting a house or a town or a country. You never know what new information will come from seeing the house, town, or cemetery.

For more information on rendering a family tree diagram, visit the National Genealogical Society for free charts and templates.

Death Books – It can’t be as morbid as it sounds

My mom died a year ago yesterday. After my dad died I struggled with the tensions and conflict between death and life. After my mom died last year I noticed that my  relationship with death has evolved dramatically since my dad’s death in 1997. I am now able to look at death and see it for what it is, part of the entire circle of breath. Part of the journey. I no longer see death as an end. A void. I no longer fear it. I respect it. I no longer run from it.  I see it as something to sit with and be transformed by.

When my mother passed away last year, I realized I was now the oldest living female in our family. That was when I started thinking of myself as not becoming older but becoming elder. Elder like the old medicine woman or the old wise woman or the woman who is the keeper of the family knowledge, stories, and special potions. I learned that I was at an age that in many traditions, including yogic and Nahuatl for example, is seen as a time of rebirthing with all of the wisdom that one has from the past. And, it seemed to feel right.

As I comtemplated this emerging role for myself, I reflected on all of the knowledge I had acquired from the elder women in my life and family. With a desire to not have it all be forgotten, and a desire to ensure that all will be okay when it is my turn to exit, I commenced upon the creation of our family Death Book. It really is not as morbid as it sounds.

In the early years of married life I had begun making seasonal menus and companion grocery lists for each week. It was a means to survival. Organization in the world of a growing family with young children. The menus streamlined costs, shopping time (the lists were efficient), and reduced the need for the question, “What’s for dinner?”


These seasonal menus and shopping lists became the foundation of our family Death Book. The book contains 7 sections:

VOLUME 1:

  • Family Recipes 

VOLUME 2:

  • DIY Seasonings
  • Sauces & Extracts
  • Beverages
  • Breakfast & Brunch
  • Appetizers
  • Soups & Stews
  • Dinner
  • Slow Cooker
  • Sides
  • Salads 
  • Dressings

VOLUME 3:

  • Breads
  • Bars
  • Muffins
  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Muffins
  • Pies
  • Snacks
  • Other Sweets

VOLUME 4:

  • Canning
  • Freezing
  • Fermentation
  • Culinary Gifts
  • Body Care
  • Cleaning
  • Essential Oils
  • Around the House
  • Family Remedies
  • Other


VOLUME 5:

  • Cleaning Plan

VOLUME 6:

  • Holiday Traditions

VOLUME 7:

  • Emergency Preparedness

These recipes and the information provided are all time tested and treasured by our family. They are the ones that I hope my girls will take with them and continue with their families some day. In fact, I have already found them using the book when they are in the making mood and decide to make drop biscuits, cookies, or room sprays. Volume 4 is particularly special to me as it contains the magic – how to make candles, how to can strawberry preserves, how to make deodorant, what to do for a sore throat, and so much more. These are the actions that are easily lost over time. I hope that by compiling all of this into one book my girls can pass forward some of these special aspects of our family. By doing so we will continue to live on. 

Since I embarked on the Death Book I have discovered that others have done similar things. Check out:

Heather Bruggeman – Heather blogs at Beauty that Moves. Her approach was to create individual family binders filled with recipes. As she says on her IG, “if something were to happen to me, they’ll know how to keep this ship sailing. (Though I’m sure they’d find their way just fine without these.)” She can be found on IG at https://www.instagram.com/heather_bruggeman/ 

Melissa Coleman  – Melissa blogs at The Faux Martha and has released a book The Minimalist Kitchen. Her new book grew out of an attempt to organize her kitchen in a manner that works for her. The process she implemented grew into her book containing all of her kitchen ingredients and her families favorite recipes.

Good vibes and sunshine

The temperatures have broken! The polar vortex has moved on. Candlemas has come and gone. The sun is different as days lengthen. Good vibes and sunshine.

Good vibes call for good smells. The diffuser is going. Oven baked potatoes are cooking. Doggie is nested by the fire listening to mellow tunes. One daughter is still sleeping and the other is reading. Such a nice way to ease into a Sunday morning. 

We have five diffusers throughout our house – each bedroom, living room, family room. Right now the ones in the living room and the family room are going. Why do we use diffusers?

Though they seem safe, scented candles are one source of indoor air pollution. When burning candles, whatever is in the wax is dispersed into the air. Burning candles that are full of petroleum byproducts, chemicals, and waste products puts all of that into the air in the room. Some scented candles don’t use natural based scent compounds. Some contain trace amounts of organic chemicals, including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, and naphthalene. Check out this article from the EPA for more information about candles as a source of indoor air pollution. Some scented candles also have lead in the wick. In fact, the University of Michigan released a study showing that 30% of candles in the USA release lead into the air. When burning a candle you are breathing it in everything the candle is emitting.

It’s been decades since I have burned scented candles. If I choose to burn candles for ambience, I burn 100% beeswax candles from Bluecorn Beeswax or I make my own.

There are a number of studies that suggest that using essential oils can:

  • reduce stress
  • improve mood
  • purify the air 
  • aid in calming

To review more on aromatherapy with essential oils visit the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Our diffusers are used every day. Diffusing essential oils in our home is a great way for everyone to experience the benefits of essential oils. The diffuser takes an essential oil and breaks it down into micro molecules and disburses them into the air. Ours diffuses well in an average-sized room (200–300 square feet), and the ultrasonic mist gives any space a spa-like atmosphere. 

We use our diffusers at night to prepare for sleep. We use them during homework time and reading hour. We have one in each of our cars – this is when I truly need peace and calming blends! One travels into the kitchen when particularly stinky food is being made in order to help meditate the smell. We keep pitchers of water next to our diffusers, at the ready, so that there is very little effort expended to get the diffuser going. 

So often the quality of my entire day is tied to the way my morning begins – walk with the dog, morning warming beverage, meditate, first cup of tea, yoga, and what’s in the diffuser. While I may experience relaxation, alertness, motivation… most importantly it smells so good!!! Smell activates memory for me so different combinations of essential oils will take me back to different places, times, and emotions.

  • Lavender + Orange + Thieves + Cedarwood = candy canes
  • Cedarwood + Lemon +Rosemary = living on islands in the Chesapeake Bay
  • Douglas Fir + Frankincense + Sandalwood + Lavender + Wild Orange = campfires

Today, as thoughts are turning to planning this year’s garden and day trips for spring family fun days, the good vibes are created by Bergamot + Lavender + Geranium + Lemongrass. 

Why do you use a diffuser and what essential oils do you love in your diffuser?