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.