Friday, May 27, 2011

Spanning Generations

It’s the season for the traditional end-of-school-year festivities that make some students squirm and others shine. As in most other endeavors, our family took the alternate route for childhood education and homeschooled. One of our year-end tasks was to participate in the Project Fair organized by our parents’ co-op.

One year, while our daughter displayed her projects on photography, graphic arts and other parentally-imposed assignments, my husband and I strolled the aisles looking at other students’ work.

One young man had a display about his great-grandfather’s service in World War II. My husband, always interested in WWII memorabilia, paused to admire the student’s collection. While he looked over the letters and photos the boy had displayed, all of a sudden a great disconnect flashed in my mind: here was my husband, great-grandson of someone who served in the Civil War, talking to a boy whose great-grandfather lived through World War II.

It’s all a matter of generations.

Take a family with lots of children, let the youngest be a parent of the next generation’s large family. If the baby of that household becomes your parent, and you are the youngest of that home, a trip backwards through the generations can take leaps and bounds through the decades. On the other hand, if the oldest child of a family gives birth at the age of twenty to the first grandbaby, and that scenario is repeated through a few generations, it is not that difficult to fill your photo album with five-generation family portraits.

The passing of time has certainly changed the look of family composition. A quick look at census records from a hundred years ago can easily demonstrate that.

That was one aspect of family research that I hadn’t noticed when I first started digging up my roots. Of course, that was in the age of microfilm-at-archives drudgery. The dust, uncooperative readers, and poor film quality distracting eyes and nose were enough to draw attention from the real point of being there.

Now, there are all sorts of online resources—and some of them are deliciously free. Ahhh! Just breathe in the wonderful scent of home, relax in the comfort of your own easy chair...and you can actually read between the lines on those census pages.

You can even do a test drive for yourself. If you know the name of a grandfather or grandmother, enter it here. If you are part of one of those families whose generations each had more than two children and thus spanned more than a decade at a leap, your grandparents’ names may actually be listed in a publicly-available pre-1940 census.

How strangely enticing to see your own grandparents’ names in a document that old! Though it only shows the slightest glimpse of who those people were—where they lived at the moment, maybe how old they were when they were first married, what language their parents spoke—it is a snapshot that beckons you to step inside the picture and imagine more about who those people really were.

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