Saturday, November 29, 2014

Not Everyone is Called to This Mission

How’s your Thanksgiving weekend going? Sick of leftovers yet? All shopped out from Black Friday—or its new sidekick, Black Friday Eve?

Everyone has a focus, and for some, it’s culinary arts. Or gustatory delights. Or shopping. Admittedly, football is on a lot of people’s lists. And yes, there is genealogy.

For those focused on genealogy, there is a family history connection for everything. Especially Thanksgiving. That, of course, is a holiday built around family, so the angle is obvious.

One suggestion making the rounds, leading up to this Thanksgiving, was to take the opportunity to capture some family history: interview older relatives about their memories of family long ago.

Perhaps you’ve tried that: in the midst of Thursday’s full agenda, finding the eldest of your relatives and pulling her aside for a quiet chat—or worse, putting her under the spotlight, front and center (all recorded, of course)—to glean those details that, somehow, you’ve missed after years of diligent research. Sometime after the turkey made it into the oven, but before the kids come in from a rousing game of mud football, this would be your chance.

No, someone just came running in from the game, tracking mud through the hallway. Wait, the Thanksgiving Day Parade is on. Whoever is blasting that music, turn it down! Or use your earbuds. Really! Why is anyone in the kitchen right now? Did someone just drop a plate? Stop nibbling on the dessert! Out! Oh, no, the turkey is done early. The mashed potatoes aren’t ready yet. Company’s at the door. Phone call: your sister/daughter/niece who moved to the other side of the country is homesick and wants to talk. Hurry, the pregame show is on in half an hour; I don’t want to miss it.*

About the time the thankful household experiences its first lull of the holiday, everyone is overdosed on tryptophan and ready for a nap. Great Grandma? She’s already out.

So maybe the Thanksgiving interview with the elders didn’t work out for you—or if it did, the minute you turned on the tape recorder, the matriarch of the family instantly stopped talking. But there are other ways to get people talking about their family history, even if it isn’t at the Thanksgiving Day gathering.

I like what Smadar Belkind Gerson, author of Stored Treasures and blogger at Past-Present-Future, discovered: she could encourage her children to pick up an interest in their family history. In Smadar’s case, it was her eldest son who began researching the family’s story by interviewing his grandparents as part of a project for his Bar Mitzvah. Of course, it helped that her son’s conversation with his grandparents allowed him to see those elders as the children they once were, with parents of their own. An extra bonus was discovering that his grandfather was once a champion swimmer—and finding those unusual stories of fame or good fortune will certainly perk up anyone’s attention.

Yet, in an interview with Sarah Sward Ashley on Geneartistry, recapping that experience of her son’s exploration of the family’s history, Smadar observed, “My advice: don’t force them.”

She wisely noted that
Everyone needs to go through their own process and we each have a different pace of when we become interested. I took forty years to focus my attention on family history. Some people take even longer.

One genealogist, author Stephanie Pitcher Fishman, discovered the utility of family history as a tool in helping students focus on history—particularly local history. Family history is a way to make the big events of history seem more personal. Writing for The In-Depth Genealogist, Stephanie listed suggestions on augmenting school studies with the real-life context of students’ own family stories, to help nurture their interest in history.

While Stephanie’s article focused on suggestions which could be implemented particularly well by homeschooling families, another writer designed a grade-specific curriculum which easily fits into the public school academic design. Jennifer Holik, creator of the Branching Out curriculum, is also a genealogist in the Chicago area, and among other topics, speaks to groups about “Engaging the Next Generation.”

Inspiring a love of genealogy in others—particularly the younger generations—is a vital step in insuring that we preserve and pass along the information we’ve already accumulated and assembled. And that strategy has worked, in many cases. While it seemed, in the past, that genealogical research was the domain of the recently-retired—and beyond—groups like The NextGen Genealogy Network demonstrate that genealogy’s siren call is going out to all generations.

And it’s had its benefits. If it weren’t for the customary “family tree” assignment given in one New Jersey high school, a cousin of mine wouldn’t have stumbled upon that long-buried account of how our ancestors weren’t really Irish (as we were told), but Polish. For some students, that’s the seed that sprouted a lifelong fascination with genealogy.

For every student for whom the interest was awakened, though, there are so many others who see nothing appealing in the exercise. Those are the many for whom some of us mourn that we will have no one to whom we can pass our many years of research.

It is for these forlorn researchers that I can only offer encouragement. These are our fellow researchers who are so far beyond that naïve hope that a magical moment at the yearly family Thanksgiving gathering will suddenly spark in some other relative an insatiable hunger for more information. These are the people who mourn that there is “no one to pass this down to.”

While you are looking for that younger person to follow in your footsteps—no, to stand on your research shoulders and take your discoveries to a higher height—remember what Smadar Belkind Gerson observed. It took her forty years to awaken to a fascination with the story of her family. Others may take longer. You may not see anyone as a possible candidate now, but just wait. It may take decades, but someone you know—or maybe even someone who is not yet in your family—will someday realize that call to take up where you leave off in your research.

And the rest of all those people? The ones who would rather slip and slide through the mud to tackle that pigskin? The ones who would rather shop ’til they drop? The ones who definitely do not want to spend their Thanksgiving holiday listening to Aunt Mabel drone on about the “good ol’ days”?

Sometimes, it is best to be charitable and realize that not everyone is called to this mission. And be at peace with that reality. Remember—even if it takes a wait of forty years—there will be someone else to pick up where we leave off.

*All characters appearing in this paragraph are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


  1. I would like to pass my baton to someone with renewed energy! Some kids really take off with that school project! :)

    1. There will be someone, Far Side! Seems like it always works out that way--though sometimes, it's after a long, long wait.

  2. I need to ask my mom about depression glass to clarify my memory of why there is so much of it in boxes in my attic!

    As for the family tree research - well, perhaps the niece or nephews will pick it up some day. They are busy in college now.

    1. It sounds like you have already been the lucky winner of the "pass this along to" derby, Iggy!

  3. I read Lisa Lisson's suggestion of questions to ask around the Thanksgiving table. I told her I was then depressed since I'm the older generation - the questions were geared to ME. But you're right -- I was a full-blown adult before I got into this genealogy gig, so I don't expect my girls to clue in any time soon.

    1. I thought Smadar's point about that was spot on, Wendy: sometimes, it is a stage in life when we awaken to the need to know this family history stuff. You can't force something like that to happen out of season.


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