Hanging on our wall is a large family tree that dates back to 1760. It’s fun to count how many “Benjamins” there are throughout the generations, and sad to see how many children died before they were four years old. This is a copy of the tree, painstakingly compiled by an aunt. The original has little notes about individuals such as “died after being bitten by a dog,” or “moved to Virginia 1865” or “died leaving a fortune of $20,000.”
Family history is so engaging because it is always personal, quirky and a wondrous mix of characters. Grandparents are ideal people to lead the way in exploring this as they are uniquely poised and connected between generations. Relatives are not only individuals but representatives of their own cultures and eras. The echoes of these elements build over time like rings in a tree, part of who we are but not exactly who we are, as we are a blend.
I find children love hearing family stories as they intuitively know this is part of who they are. Maybe it’s time to pick an afternoon and peruse those photos that have been put aside in a box (or boxes!). Another bonus of being a grandparent is the availability of copious amounts of traditional photos, rather than digital. This allows them to be spread about, piled up, handed out and passed around.
Making a basic family tree with children is straightforward. One could use a large poster and attach photos to the names. I knew someone who painted a huge tree on her wall and attached the photos there. For teens, a family tree can involve going back a lot further and researching several generations. This brings history to life as one learns about the time periods ancestors lived through. Add a science component and perhaps consider trying a custom genetic test such as “23 and Me” which can be fascinating.
Of course biology is only one aspect of who a person is. In the modern, interconnected world, we see more cultural blending in families. Culture is so much more than the obvious food, costumes and dances. It can be attitudes, communication styles, traditions, humour, and priorities. How many of these do we implement daily without being aware? It just seems “natural.”
My family is originally from England and when I lived in my parents’ downstairs suite when I first returned from travelling, I realized that I used the term “bathrobe” downstairs but once I walked up to my parents’ part of the house I automatically changed it to “dressing gown.” I lived on tea and toast and automatically held my tongue as the phrase “it’s best not to say anything” seemed to be embedded in my head. Then I married an Algerian, whose loud, chatty, generous, forthright, food-centered family threw my own cultural standpoint into sharp relief.
You would think it tricky to juggle these disparate components, and sometimes it was, but it resulted in a lively mix that incorporated both backgrounds. We have afternoon tea and spicy dishes, Christmas and Ramadan, the use of expressions that originate in four different languages and children that feel they are welcome on three continents. Most importantly, it provides an example of tolerance, love and humour.
What elements of your heritage would you like to share and celebrate with grandchildren? It could be a cultural tradition or something that is specific to your own particular family. It could be creating a scrapbook or collage, or compiling a memory book. Cooking together or collecting a selection of recipes to keep and pass on is common in many families. Language, expressions and humour can reflect a culture or a region. Exploring your heritage could be a simple greeting whenever you meet or a special trip to a country of origin. Whatever it may be, it is sure to enrich your relationship with your grandchildren as well as their sense of self.
Honouring and celebrating family heritage provides an appreciation for our own ancestors and the unique blend that makes us both an individual and a member of a family group. It also builds interest and empathy in other people in the world and that can only be a good thing.