Genealogy, Family Stories, and Understanding Ourselves

A few days ago, I was scrolling through Etsy before my alarm went off, looking at vintage office supplies.  It’s one of those fascinations that probably merit people calling me an “eccentric.” Not five minutes later, my dad calls me.  Speaking in an urgent, hushed tone, he says, “I am looking on this website called Etsy right now, and I found a 1956 Austin Healy owners manual with illustrations…” Father and daughter, in their respective houses, both on Etsy looking at old stuff.

Both of my parents and I are a lot alike, which is not necessarily surprising considering the shared genes.  But we also have similar interests because we are consciously maintaining certain aspects of our family identity dating back hundreds of years: our faith, a love of reading, collecting old stuff, marveling at things with wheels, and cooking (and eating) amazing food.  Over generations on both sides of the family, certain things have been added and removed from that list.  I don’t smoke like a freight train, I have never operated a still, my fried chicken needs work, and I can’t imagine giving birth to nine sons without being numb from the neck down.  But I am intrigued and inspired by the courage, gumption, and resourcefulness of the people who came before me.  And I’m thankful to have grown up appreciating family history from a very young age.  My maternal grandmother reminded all of her grandchildren, “Remember where you came from, where you’re going, and to whom you must give account,” and it is a lesson for which I am incredibly grateful.  A little bit of where (and who) I came from:

From left: my great-grandfather Samuel (dad’s maternal grandfather), my paternal grandfather and my dad (dressed as a cowboy), my great-grandparents Rachel and James (mom’s paternal grandparents), my great grandparents Cal and Onie (mom’s maternal grandparents), my paternal grandmother Jessie, and my great grandmother Rachel (my mom’s paternal grandmother) with my mom

This desire to understand our genes and get a firm hold on our lineage is growing.  When I work with people who have been abandoned and disappointed, many times they want to find a connection to someone in their gene pool, no matter how far back, with whom to establish connections; someone they can be proud of.  And that research, when we put in the work, usually yields a wealth of stories, good, bad, funny, and cringe-worthy, that make it all worthwhile.  We are wired for stories, and the stories of the people who came before us are particularly palatable because in them we see something of ourselves.  We glean personality traits and characteristics from obituaries and wedding announcements, hard facts from the census, and business-savvy from farm records.  All of the information we gather helps us decide what qualities and abilities we want to foster in ourselves and in our children.  It enables us to feel connected to people and places we haven’t necessarily met or seen.

One way to cultivate a sense of rootedness in our families is by displaying family photographs at home.  Displaying family photographs creates a curiosity in children about the people who came before them.  It creates opportunities for us to discuss character and integrity.  It also provides a context from which we can view hardship today; not to minimize today’s struggles, because every generation has their own unique hardships, but to say “this person in my family really handled hard things with integrity, and I’m going to continue that today.”


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