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Building a Sense of Family

June 11, 2015

Susan Marg

The Association of Personal Historians is running a twenty-part series on why you should write your family history. Inspired by New York Public Library staffer Carmen Nigro, the weekly posts expand on her list of reasons, going into detail on such topics as the wisdom, humanity, and history that are derived from such endeavors.

I contributed to this effort with “Building a Sense of Family,” shown below. Read on. Read more.

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Cousins

When contemplating writing your family history, there is often the underlying fear of offending a favorite aunt or insulting a beloved cousin, setting off a family feud that lasts longer than the long-running game show. However, it is much more likely that other relatives hold your observations of both esteemed and wayward kin, and your record of your shared history will be appreciated. The rewards of preserving family recollections are so much greater than the risk.

You don’t have to be a writer to do your life or family history. You’re not competing with anyone else or comparing your life – or your writing — with those of others. You’re doing it for yourself, possibly to see how far you’ve come in life, or to leave a legacy for your children, their children, and nieces and nephews, as well.

Research conducted at Emory University shows that “family stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world,” psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke wrote. They appreciate that they belong to something bigger than themselves. The more children are aware of their background, the better their emotional health, the more resilient they are coping with stress.

This research involved asking “yes” or “no” questions, such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents went to high school, their experiences growing up, and how they meet? Do you know whom you resemble in the family? Topics certainly discussed around the dinner table and covered in a family history.

But why stop there? What do you remember about growing up, the neighborhood where you lived, and the family rituals in which you participated? What do your children know of your first job, your favorite holiday, or your most embarrassing moment? Why not share your experiences to everyone’s benefit?

A current Subaru commercial, titled “Memory Lane,” which I think is charming, taps into the feeling that comes when different generations of a family relate to each other.

A grandmother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are on a drive in the country.   The grandmother, who has that aging hippie look about her, is intent on connecting with her granddaughter. She shows her her crystal collection. At a flower stand where they’re petting a cat, the granddaughter asks her, “Can you really talk to cats?” The grandmother nods and smiles.

When they reach their destination, a tree in the middle of a field, the grandmother says, “This is where I met your grandpa, right under this tree.”

The little girl runs over and hugs the tree.

In the next frame, they’re all hugging the tree, when the grandmother has second thoughts. “Or was it that tree?” she wonders out loud.

The commercial closes with the tagline: Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Love also makes a family, and knowing your family history strengthens those bonds.

I was having lunch with my mother the other day, and she, reminiscing, told me a story I had never heard before, one that hadn’t made my family history. “Do you know what a radiator is?” “Yes,” I responded. A radiator heated my first college apartment. “Well, when I was a little girl,” she continued, “I once burned myself so badly by leaning against a hot radiator I couldn’t sit down for weeks.” Thinking about the incident, she concluded, “That’s what life is, I guess, all those little moments.”

As a personal historian, I couldn’t agree more. As a daughter, I felt closer to my mother than ever before.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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