Researching a Family History: Why Bother?

My great-grandmother with her children, c. 1918

By Chris Little

As I mentioned a few months ago here, I’ve been working on a biography of my great-grandmother lately. It’s been a lot of work, but also deeply meaningful and awfully interesting—yet I’ve noticed that whenever I talk about the project, I find myself trying to explain exactly why I’m doing it. I mean, I spend a good part of every day up to my eyebrows in a dusty journal, or struggling to make out the ornate handwriting on a crusty envelope, or squinting through a magnifying lens at a faded black-and-white photograph. Then, when it’s time to get dinner ready and I return, almost literally, to the land of the living—the living aren’t all that interested! And if I have questions about the meaning or significance of something I learn in my research, virtually everyone I could ask is dead. In fact, I meet dead ends almost everywhere I turn. So … why am I doing this?

But then there’s the deeply meaningful part, which is what keeps me plugging away on this project. Here are some of the reasons why I find this family research so important and rewarding:

Paul 1910 in Mpls (hand on post)

My great-grandfather in 1910, age 27.

Honoring the past. In some fundamental ways, our ancestors weren’t that different from us. Sure, they may have worn bustles and corsets, but like us, they loved their children and wanted them to have happy, successful lives. Some undertook great sacrifices and trials to give their children safe and productive futures. When we take the time to learn about, understand, and record the lives of our ancestors, we honor them and deepen the meaning of the struggles and sacrifices they made for their children and their children’s children—for us. What better way to show our gratitude to them, than by making the effort to understand them?

Enhancing the present. My grandmother is no longer living, but I remember how my interest in her life created a great bond between us. She loved to tell me stories about her youth, about her mother (whose life I’m now researching), and about what she knew of the generations leading up to hers. I learned a lot from my grandmother, but more than that, I treasure the memories of those conversations and the pleasure they gave her. Taking the time to ask our elders about their lives and their memories of their parents and grandparents—and then listening deeply to their answers—presents our loved ones with a gift we all share.

Linking the past and future. Studies show that families that have a sense of connection across generations are stronger and more resilient—you can read my post about that here. How will you forge that connection between your grandparents and your grandchildren unless you know something about your grandparents’ lives—their stories and histories? Today, of course, my kids aren’t that interested in my research, but one day, I hope, they’ll be middle-aged adults themselves, perhaps with an interest in their past. Then they’ll be able to use my work to help them find their place in the march of generations.

To be honest, this work feels somewhat urgent to me, because if I don’t do it, who will? When it comes down to it, I’m the one with the journals and letters and photographs in my basement. No person still alive on this planet knows as much as I do about my great-grandmother. I feel a deep responsibility to preserve what’s left of her life in a way that will give others meaningful access to it. With the sense of responsibility though, comes a sense of privilege. I’m grateful for the opportunity!

My great-uncles, c. 1925

My great-uncles, c. 1925

Having some fun! Sure, sometimes it’s frustrating, when I can’t figure out what that scribble on the page is supposed to mean, or when I can’t find the address for some old relative’s home, or when I come up for air at the end of a work session with little progress to show for it …. but when I do find that birth year, make that connection, or otherwise develop an insight into my great-grandmother’s life, it’s like solving a puzzle, and who doesn’t love a puzzle?

I realize that not everyone has boxes of family artifacts lying around in their basements. Some might only have a couple of old unlabeled photos, maybe just the names of their grandparents. Don’t despair! There are all kinds of great resources online for researching your family history— being the biggest and best. Start with the names of your parents, and see what comes up! Then share some of your stories here—we’d love to hear them!

4 thoughts on “Researching a Family History: Why Bother?

  1. This was an insightful post, Chris – I very much enjoyed it, and found that your comments in “Enhancing the Present” particularly resonated with me. That is one thing I actually did with my father while he was living. Since I was born from his second marriage, and he was much older, his stories started when he was born – in 1919! Now that he has passed away, I hold even more dear all of our conversations about his life. Although as he got older he told the same stories over and over again, I am now glad I listened to them every time!

  2. Pingback: Preserving Old Scrapbooks: Taking your grandmother’s baby pictures into their next century | Off the Merry-Go-Round

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