Who’s Your Great Grandma?

It seems to me that more and more friends are investigating their “roots.” Genealogy used to be just a pastime (excuse the pun) and now the search for one’s ancestors is taking hold with children and adults in families all over the world.  Even news anchors are tracing and documenting their roots (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/10/world/gallery/roots-cnn-anchors/index.html).

Not only does this searching personalize history, it can make events that children, in particular, study, come to life.  Each of us recognize and feel connections to places and people in unimaginable ways.  When we engage in this type of search we have the opportunity to “solve mysteries” about our family which may turn out to be informative, embarrassing, awe-inspiring, or whatever.  We feel that we are part of a larger story which enhances the significance of our personal chapter.

Whether or not we do formal search, it is hugely important to share family stories with younger generations.  Although everyone’s story is different and everyone’s memory focuses on different aspects of their family story, sharing perceptions of who our forebears were helps solidify connections among generations.  It also helps names come to life.

This notion struck me when my grandson had the beginnings of a sore throat and I immediately began to prepare a warm lemon / honey tea recipe from my grandmother.  As he sipped that tea from my grandmother’s cup,  I saw a wonderful opportunity to share stories about her.  My grandmother died when I was 3 and for my entire growing up, I used her soup spoon for my soup or cereal.  With every spoonful I heard another (or the same) story about a woman I never knew but who was “THE MAMA” of the family.  I learned about how she fled Poland and came to Canada and then to the States for a visit and she and “THE PAPA” decided to stay.  I heard about this selfless woman who insisted that my mom (then pregnant with my sister) move into the tiny apartment behind my grandpa’s carpentry shop.  For nearly 3 years that my father was in the war, they lived together.  Each story helped me form a picture of her generosity, warmth, and making personal sacrifices for her family.  Although I do not remember her, I have stories upon stories (along with precious few photographs) that bring her spirit to life.  Now that I am a grandmother, I try to model myself on this loving and patient woman I never knew.  We need those stories to help us discover ourselves and decide how we live our lives in relation to those who came before us.

But what happens when we ask questions about relatives whose stories we have never heard? Stories that are not shared?  What challenges did they face?  Did they suffer?  What qualities did they have?  Were they generous?  Loving?  Hard working?  Humble?  Short-tempered?  Did they cheat?  Gamble?  Drink?  What were like with their families?  At work?  In the community?  Who were they and how are we like them?
Sometimes when we search or hear stories from relatives, we find out things that are contrary to what we believed to be true.  What do we make of discovering that the woman we believed was our aunt is not our aunt?  We find out that in fact, she is our mother!  We believe a woman to be our grandma and we discover she married our grandfather years after his first wife died. Oh, he had a “first wife?”  She surely was our grandmother (just not genetically).  It makes more sense because nobody in the family looks like her.
How do we process the challenge to the story we always knew to be true about a cousin who died of cancer?  Years later at a family gathering, somebody mentioned that he shot himself.  And then there is the mother who had an entire first family that was killed before coming to America.  She never spoke about those who were lost yet there was a profound sadness that overtook her at particular times of the year.  Or the father who had two families simultaneously, one in Chicago and one in Houston, neither of which knew about the other until the father’s untimely death.  Or the young mother who discovers she is pregnant with twins and confidently responds that there were no twins in her family until her grandmother admits that she, in fact, had a twin who died at birth.  The stories are as varied as imaginable.
The search can be one’s own magical mystery tour.  Just know, you can gear up and become Sherlock but be aware that not all family members may be eager to learn what you discover.

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