Knowing their family history and where they came from gives kids a sense of belonging, and in fact, is the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness, according to research cited in an article in the New York Times. Psychologists, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush found that “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
As both my husband and I are first-generation immigrants, our extended families are scattered around the world and barely in our lives. Our kids don’t know family reunions or histories. I barely know them.
So a few years ago, I set out to document our family tree. While many sites (ancestry.com and myheritage.com, to name a few) allow you to do so electronically, I wanted our tree to be in my kids’ faces rather than something that was accessed only for a school project. Inspired by family diagrams I had seen in museums, I set out to create a work of art that would accompany us in our house and remind us of the people we were connected with. It hangs in our dining room and allows our ancestors to look upon us at each meal.
Whether you want your family dramas and faces that close or somewhere a bit farther, find your medium, find your storytellers, and go for it. In this case, there’s really no time like the present.
Do It Now
We’re always going to be too busy, but things change on a dime, and these stories are only in our relatives’ heads. Capture them while you can. Worry about organizing them later.
With our parents, we sat down and went through albums and collected notes on all the people we saw. With more distant relatives, I sent emails with specific questions asking for a reply and a photo by a certain date. Questions included, “where did you go to school, how did you meet your spouse, what jobs did you have, what kinds of things did you enjoy as a kid?” We traced our kids’ interests and talents to their relatives, found the one person in the family (several generations back) who had fiery red hair like my daughter’s, and learned we had a Great-Great-Grandmother who made candy in a candy factory.
Document the Impact of Historical Events
On our tree, we circled all the people who perished in the Holocaust. We can now visibly see the impact on future generations between my family, who lived mostly in eastern Europe, and my husband’s in Israel. In my family, two children were buried alive while their parents were made to watch. These are stories that never came out until I asked for them.
In our tree, we display the flags of the countries where each person lived under their photo. At a glance, our kids can see how their family is spread across the globe and how many countries we span. We have a key of the flags at the bottom because our kids nor we are proficient in them.
Make the Stories the Centerpiece
On our tree, I footnoted the photos and wrote out the stories of each person or family right on that same page.
Expect it to Take a Long Time
During a three-month break between jobs, I embarked on this project and spent the better part of that time, plus three more months of evenings and weekends on the project. I started online and quickly ditched that for diagrams on paper. I taped 16 pages together to make enough workspace for the various relationships (divorces and second marriages, 12 children born to parents only a few generations back) and repeatedly scrapped it and started over. Every time we showed it to our parents, there was a new relative remembered, or one in the wrong spot. Maybe a few names weren’t quite right. Babies were in the process of being born.
Make it Yours
We included pics of family heirlooms and pets along the bottom—even a drawing of our house. Your history and family are anything you want them to be.
Our tree is doing its job. Our kids wander by it and steal glances all the time. They remember where distant cousins live and can visualize their namesakes. Do they think their family functions successfully, though? That’s going to take a lot more, but the tree can’t hurt.