TIPS FOR PARENTS
Ever feel untethered? Like you don't really belong or have roots? Progress has afforded us opportunities to make our own luck far from our past, but sometimes a sense of family identity gets lost in the shuffle. Your children may feel this too, but not be able to name what they're missing.
The exercise of completing census forms and television shows like NBC's "Who do you think you are?" have prompted many families, including mine, to re-examine their origins. Recently, we reminded our children that on their father's side they have Native-American relatives. Later, I found a note our 9-year-old daughter had written: "Life notes: I may be related to Pocahontas!" We've since learned that my husband's great-great-grandfather was a full-blooded Catawba Indian, making our children 1/32nd Catawba, or about 3 percent.
Last December, I received a package from my cousin, which contained a photocopy of my paternal family tree and three audio CDs. One featured my long-deceased grandfather reciting his favorite poetry. Another brought me right back to Thanksgiving 1977 and included recordings of mine and my cousins' voices. The third, my favorite, features my father's family during 1954. Included are recordings of my grandmother (an accomplished pianist) playing the piano and another of her simply talking on the phone with a neighbor. She can also be heard exchanging holiday greetings with her mother and others as they arrived at her home, and my father, then 13, can be heard cracking jokes with his brothers.
This treasure trove of recordings reminded me that the process of rediscovering our ancestry is so much more than merely recording names and dates on a family tree. It is about discovering the essence, the spirit of those who came before us and understanding how it is that their ways of being, learning, coping and celebrating may have helped to shape who we are today. Thinking about ancestry in this way can help your children feel more connected and grounded.
Together, brainstorm what they would like to learn about your family. Let them choose research tasks based on their interests and abilities. Teach them to surf the Web for census data, make phone calls, find and read old letters, write new ones and interview living relatives.
How did your relatives work and play? How did they feel about the political and social issues of their day? What were their relationships like? What did they worry about, wish for and regret?
What events triggered or precipitated the choice to immigrate where and when they did?
You and your children may be surprised by what you learn and by how real the people on your family tree become.
For example, my family discovered that as a young man, one of my Irish great-grandfathers, Peter, felt his father, a tenant farmer, was being unfairly treated by the landowner. In retaliation he reportedly took the landowner's prized colt out for a vigorous run, resulting in the colt's broken leg and death. Peter's mother was so scared for him that she gave him her "pin money" and urged him to flee Ireland for America. First he headed south and worked as a farmhand to earn the rest of the money he needed for his passage, then sailed with his employer's family to America where he married his employer's daughter, my great-grandmother.
This colorful tale helped my children learn about the passions and family loyalties of their ancestors. Families who discover their stories find they develop and deepen family bonds and report that their children feel a greater sense of self- and family-esteem.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.