Tag Archive | family

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—Ancestry.com 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!

Halloween… Through the Years

Trick or Treat! Enjoy these photos from Off the Merry-Go-Round’s families–a celebration of haunted Halloweens past.

What fun, to look back at costumes and kids growing through the years. As you think back to past Octobers, what costumes or characters stand out in your mind? Share your memories below… if you dare!

Halloween 2013WEB

Superman to the rescue!

Halloween 1999WEB

Butterfly: Easy costume idea!

Halloween 2006WEB

Trio of Characters: A Knight, Cowgirl & Indian Princess

Halloween 2007 2

This cowboy lassoed some goodies!

Halloween 2007

This cowboy posse is ready for trick or treatin’…

Halloween 2008 2

Sports uniforms always make for easy costumes!

Halloween 2008 3

Two soccer stars and a human iPod!

Halloween 2009

Rock stars!

Halloween 2011

Harry Potter and a bloody soccer player… plus a photobombing big sister!


A life-size iPod!

Turns out it IS who you know that counts.


Used by permission of erinbrownart.com

By Chris Little

One of the things I’ve loved about being a stay-home mom, and then a stay-home “off the merry-go-round” writer, is getting to stay home! I love it when the kids are shambling around the house doing their own thing, being a little loud and making a mess. And I love it when I’m home alone and the house is tidy and quiet (except for the washing machine, always the washing machine …).

That said, one of the things I’ve really struggled with as a stay-home mom and writer … is being home so much! It can be lonely, especially when the kids are off at school. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I wish I had a full-time job to go to, just so I’d have access to a water cooler to stand around and chat with coworkers! So when I’m alone a lot, I create my own water cooler—I force myself to have ten real live conversations a day with friends or extended family members—emails and texts don’t count!—as a way to reach out of my isolation. It never fails to make me feel better.

But every downside has an upside, right? I like to think that my bouts with this largely self-imposed solitude give me a greater appreciation for the people in my life. I mean: I don’t spend a lot of time wishing people would leave me alone! And I don’t typically crave the opportunity to get away by myself.

So this article by Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic offered me some reassurance that I’m on the right track, as I lean less on my work and more on my family and friends for my happiness. Smith describes journalist Rod Dreher’s book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, in which he relates the life and untimely death of his sister Ruthie. Dreher contrasts Ruthie’s choice to work as a schoolteacher in the small Louisiana town where their family had lived for generations with his own decision to leave town to travel the world in an ambitious pursuit of career success.


As Dreher accompanied Ruthie through her struggle with terminal lung cancer, he came to appreciate the beauty of her network of friends: How her neighbors pulled together to take Ruthie to her doctor appointments and cook meals for her kids. How they raised money to help cover her medical bills. How they were there for her husband after her death. Ruthie’s life may have been small, even invisible, compared to Dreher’s comparative fame as a respected journalist. But her life was deeply, richly interconnected with the lives of the people around her. And she wasn’t the only one—Dreher saw that anchoring sense of connection to family, friends, and neighbors in everyone he talked with back home in Louisiana. It was something he was lacking in his own life—and he realized it was something he missed. Dreher and his wife eventually decided to move home to Louisiana with their three children.

I love this story—it’s a good antidote for those days when I question my decision to step away from a career-centered life. In her article Smith cites a study that finds that ambitious people, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to seek more education at more prestigious schools, and to make more money at more prestigious jobs, than less ambitious folks. But, she notes, the study fails to find a similarly clear correlation between career success and life satisfaction. In fact some studies suggest that the pursuit of money and social status can lead to a lower overall sense of well-being, she writes.

Bayou Conversation

It seems that it’s not our careers but the strength and number of our social ties—those messy, compromise-ridden, sometimes-difficult relationships like marriage, family, and close friendships—that best predict our happiness, our satisfaction with our lives, even our physical health.

Now certainly, we can work full-time and have those rich relationships. Having a spouse or children aren’t prerequisites, either. The most important thing is probably the simplest one—just recognizing how deeply satisfying it feels to be held in a web of relationships. To have those ten conversations (or more!) each day. After that, placing a priority on sustaining and enriching those ties comes naturally.

So how about you? How do you feel most connected with your family? With your friends and neighbors? Do you find that you intentionally create opportunities for those connections? Or do you struggle to find the time and energy?

News flash: This week National Public Radio ran a fascinating segment on Rod Dreher discussing his sister Ruthie, their home town’s practice of community, and his new book. You can listen to it here.

Images: Some rights reserved by NJ.. and Editor B.

March Madness!

March Madness - Let the Games Begin!

March Madness – Let the Games Begin!

By Ruth Topper

Do things get a little wild and crazy around your house in March?  If so, maybe you have a little March Madness going on!  You may be wondering (if you aren’t a big sports/basketball fan)… What is March Madness anyway?

Here they are - filling out their "Brackets"

Here they are – filling out their “Brackets”

Well, it is basically a tournament of the best college basketball teams across the country.  Prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament (also known as “March Madness”), each conference has its own tournament or conference champion who advances to the NCAA Tournament.  The teams who end up in the tournament are a mixture of conference champions, automatic bids and at large bids.  The colleges represented range from big names like Duke, Michigan and Michigan State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and North Carolina State, etc. to lesser known schools like Bucknell, Valparaiso, Gonzaga and Butler.  All I know is that excitement hit my household this past Sunday, March 17 when the sixty-eight teams going to the tournament were announced!   As soon as these teams are decided upon, basketball fans across the country go crazy!  They run to print off a “Bracket.”   This “Bracket” lists all the teams that made it to the tournament and who they are playing in the opening game.

Now the fun begins!  Basketball fans begin to do “research” on the teams to try & figure out who will win each game and move on in the tournament.  The idea is to narrow your “picks” down to the “Sweet 16”, “Elite 8”, “Final 4” and of course choose the two teams that will eventually play in the Championship Game.  These fans take this job very seriously.  Pools spring up in the workplace and lots of water cooler and dinner time discussion takes place as everyone considers the various teams, players, coaches, etc.  The joke in our family is that I can fill out the bracket knowing very little about any of the basketball teams and do as well in selecting teams that will win as they do after researching and agonizing over which ones to pick in every game.  The goal is to have the “Bracket” filled out by Thursday, March 21.

The kids fill out multiple "Brackets".  This is a "fun" one - meaning their favorite teams are winning!

The kids fill out multiple “Brackets”. This is a “fun” one – meaning their favorite teams are winning!

Rachel - showing off her brand new "Butler" t-shirt!

Rachel – showing off her brand new “Butler” t-shirt!

On Thursday, March 21 sixty-eight teams will have begun play.  After just a few hours of basketball play I start hearing moans and groans as teams lose and are out of the tournament or shouts of joy that a particular team is moving on!    The “Bracket” doesn’t stray far from the owner!  A highlighter will come out and if a team wins – they get highlighted.  (This is very exciting!)  If a team loses – they get a big X over them.  It’s really bad when a team loses in a very early round when that team was predicted to go to the Elite 8, Final 4 or heaven forbid – into the Championship game!  This could mean weeping & wailing – depending on the age of the fan!  (Yes, grown men have been known to cry – but not my husband!) This first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is the highlight of a basketball fan’s year!  Multiple games are being played at the same time on several channels, exciting highlights of games will be telecast from station to station and these sixty-eight teams will be narrowed down to sixteen teams by the end of play on the first Sunday of the Tournament.

The following Thursday, March 28, these sixteen teams start play again.  By Sunday evening the sixteen teams will be narrowed down to just 4 teams (“The Final 4”).  On Saturday, April 6 the Final 4 teams face each other and we will be down to the two teams who will play in the Championship Game on Monday, April 8.  The winner of this game will hold the Championship Title for the next year!

Seth dunking the ball!

Seth dunking the ball!

Why do I share all of this with you? Well…basketball has become a favorite sport in my house.  All three of my kids (including my daughter, Rachel, who has a thing for Butler – not sure why) & my husband love watching basketball and shooting hoops (or ballin’) either outside in the driveway or with the mini hoop in our basement.  They love to talk about their favorite teams, the players, their “moves,” the “ref” calls and speculate who will come out on top of each game.   Frankly it is the only topic of conversation going on  right now in my house!

So…..what does March Madness mean to you?  Who is your favorite team?  Who are you picking to win the Championship Game? My pick is…

The Florida Gators winning over Gonzaga in the Championship. You heard it here first!

Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Step into your dreams!


Image: Some rights reserved by Grand Canyon NPS

by Chris Little

In my last few posts I’ve been exploring adapting to the empty(ing) nest, that dicey time when you’re transitioning from being a mother with kids at home to a mother whose kids are off at college or otherwise on their own. I’ve written about the importance of reconnecting with your own dreams and desires, and about how volunteer work can help you engage meaningfully in your community outside your home, about how you might want to consider investing more in your work as your kids are home less and less. Now I’d like to explore the possibility that this transition time can be the time to start a new career entirely!

As your kids have grown older and begun to stretch their wings, of course you’ve grown into an older, wiser woman, too. Over the years you’ve learned some things about yourself, about what you need and what you love. But maybe you’ve had to set some of your dreams on the back burner so you could attend fully to the kids. Sometimes those dreams have evolved and changed over the years, as we’ve grown and matured.

Either way, now is the time to begin thinking about what you might do with your life, if you could do anything. What do you love to do? Can you begin to take steps to make that love your life’s work?

Liz trained to be a biology teacher in college. When she started her family she stayed home with the kids and got involved in volunteering for their schools. In her free time she stayed in shape by taking yoga classes, and she found she loved the way yoga made her body and mind feel. So as her kids have gotten older Liz has taken some teacher training classes and now teaches a few yoga classes each week. It’s not full-time, but it’s something she loves and looks forward to expanding into as the kids leave the house.

Deb did some freelance writing when her kids were at home, and picked up an adjunct position teaching English as a Second Language at the local community college when they were at high school. She found she loved working with her students, so after the kids moved out she went back to school for her master’s degree, and now she’s teaching full-time.

As moms who are “off the merry go round” we can find ourselves in a unique position as our kids leave the nest—we really have the opportunity to start a brand-new chapter in our lives. Sure, we may be a little sad about closing the chapter where we were home with the kids. But we can also be excited about writing this next chapter. Here’s how:

1. Look at your dreams.

Maybe you have a dream for what you’ll do in this next phase of your life. Or maybe the seeds of that dream are in hidden in your life right now. So take some time to think about who you’ve become over the years. What’s important to you? What do you love to do? What activity would you (or do you) do for free?

2. Lay out a plan for making them a reality.

This may take some time and energy, but you owe it to yourself (and your children and your spouse!) to put some thought into making this next phase of your life as rewarding as your child-rearing years have been. Ashley is taking classes so that when the kids leave home she can start a career as a counselor. Susan went back to school to learn massage therapy. Rebecca translated her love for cosmetics into a career as a Mary Kay rep. All are still available to their families. All continue to struggle to maintain good work-life balance. But all are negotiating this sometimes sad, sometimes surprisingly exciting time with optimism toward the future.

3. Step into it!

Remember, our goal is to raise independent kids who can manage their own lives, so if the kids don’t seem to need you any more, congratulate yourself on a job well done. But remain available for the times they stumble and need your help. And take a few steps toward making the rest of your life as rewarding and fulfilling as the last eighteen or so years have been!

So, what are your dreams for your empty(ing) nest years? What are you looking forward to getting into after the kids are out of the house?


Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Invest in your work


Image: Some rights reserved by San José Library

By Chris Little

In my last two posts I wrote about adapting to the empty(ing) nest—how do you manage the transition from being a mother with kids at home to being a mother whose kids are off on their own? I suggested, first of all, taking some time to reconnect with yourself and your hopes and dreams after all those years of child-focused living. Then I suggested expanding your nest—broadening your circle of concern to include not only your immediate family but your local community, and investing in that community through volunteer work.

Now I want to think about investing more in your work. Many moms who step “off the merry go round” of full-time work remain connected to their careers through part-time, home-based, or freelance work. If you’ve scaled back your work for the kids, then as the kids move out of the house, now might be the time to pick things up again. Because even though we’ve loved being home with our kids, having work we love can be immensely rewarding and provides a sense of purpose for a lot of us, especially as we transition out of the intensely child-focused years.

I’m thinking of my friend Wendy, who had done project-oriented and volunteer work at our local arts council for years. As her kids got into middle school and high school, she stepped into a part-time position there. She’s still home when the kids are, and she’s involved in an organization she feels strongly committed to, so that as her kids move on out into the world, she’ll have a meaningful focus for her energy and talent.

And there’s my friend Karen, who loved working as a substitute teacher when her kids were young, so she decided to go for her teaching certificate while they were in high school. Now she’s starting a full-time teaching career as her youngest is beginning to look at colleges.

Here are three steps for investing in your work as the kids move out of the house:

1. Think about your work: Is it a good fit?

Do you love your work? Is it meaningful and exciting and a good use of your time and skills? In short, would you like to do more as your schedule opens up? Some women find that their interests have changed over the years they’ve been focusing on their families, and their old careers just don’t excite them anymore. But others can’t wait to dig a little deeper and commit themselves a little more. So take some time to think about whether your work is still meaningful to you, or whether you’d like to go off in a different direction (which I’ll write about in my next post!).

2. If it is, consider taking on a little more.

Talk with your supervisor to see if you can pick up more hours. If your work is freelance or home-based, look around for a few potential new clients you can approach. Take some people out to lunch. Do some work on a pro bono basis (that is, [volunteer]!) Tell your friends and colleagues you’re looking for a little more work. It may take awhile to get re-established, but that gives you time to slowly transition from being child-focused into a more work-centered life.

3. But don’t overcommit!

As you get more into your work, you might be tempted to overcommit. Be careful to maintain balance in your life. Although your kids might not show it, they still need you around, and you never know when they’ll want to talk. In fact, I know moms who chose to step off the merry-go-round during their kids’ high school years, so that they’ll be available for them after school, and for college visits, etc.

But inching your way back into the working world as your children begin leaving home can be rewarding for both you and the kids, and it can definitely smooth your transition into being the mother of daughters and sons who live outside the home.

So how about you? Do you do part-time, freelance, or home-based work in addition to parenting your kids? Do you love it? Are you thinking about investing more in your work as the kids leave home?

“Blood is Thicker Than Water and Other Misrepresentations of Family Life”

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

My son looks nothing like me yet my love for him runs deeper than any blood between us could.

My son looks nothing like me yet my love for him runs deeper than any blood between us could.

I once read an advice columnist’s comments to a gentleman who was concerned about his wife’s preoccupation with having a child, and their struggles to conceive after three years of trying and countless visits to IVF doctors. He said his wife becomes upset when friends become pregnant, is “obsessed with all things ‘baby,’” and is in denial that they simply might just not have kids. The columnist commented that his wife was not in denial, rather in despair. She said his wife is aching to be a mother – and that’s a real ache. She advised the man to get counseling for the couple, as well as to consider adoption. In fact, she said, she was an adoptive mother. The columnist added that there are children in the world who need mothers just as badly as his wife needs to be one. She assured the man that the instant he and his wife hold their baby, the importance of the manner in which the child was delivered will dissolve in tears of joy.

My husband and I had been following the Camelot television series and during one episode, Arthur spoke to a man who was afraid of losing his daughter if she ever discovered that he was not her biological father. When Arthur spoke, my husband and I just looked at each other and smiled – finally, a script writer who truly “gets” adoption, who truly understands that families can be built by choice as well. To the man, Arthur said, “It’s not blood that ties you together; it’s the memories you share. Everything you taught her, everything you gave up for her – it’s your love, that’s what flows through her.”

How a child comes into a family is not as important as the blessing that the child is there. In my life, I have experienced the love of family members with whom I share not one ounce of blood. When I look back on my childhood, I see clearly how many ways those special people were more of a family to me in the true meaning and experience of the word than most of my “blood” relatives. Some people remark that they “don’t see race” as a factor in how they interact with people from ethnicities other than their own. (I laugh heartily when Stephen Colbert humorously states this on his television show – of course we see race!) In the same way, I don’t see how inherited physical and personality traits such as daddy’s eye color, mommy’s nose, and grandpa’s sense of humor are at all relevant in how a family lives and loves together.

Just funnin' with Dad!

Just funnin’ with Dad!

Unknowingly, my mother taught me about the beauty of building a family through adoption. She was an only child and built her family through friends with whom she became close over the years. My aunts and uncles were introduced into my life from those friendship bonds. And guess what? I was none the wiser. There was no talk of a woman not being my “real” aunt, nor lengthy explanations and justifications as to why Mr. and Mrs. X became my grandparents. Two wonderful married couples who had been friends with my parents became my aunts and uncles – Don and Louise, who were my godparents and who have since passed away, and Bob and Nancy, who continue to be such a delightful present in my family’s life.

Two other sets of “relatives” in particular influenced my life in some very profound ways. I have definitely “inherited” my Aunt Mary Alice’s flair for entertaining masses of people in my home without breaking a sweat. Her grace and class, and the way her home was made an open, welcoming haven for traveling family and friends no matter what else she had going on, astounds me. She also imparted to me the importance of moisturizing one’s entire body with lotion daily – clearly a beauty regiment necessity!

I remember my mother once remarked about Mary Alice saying, “She saved my life,” as her eyes welled up with tears. Mary and her husband, Bob, had become my mother’s family when she had none. A blood tie alone to another person does not necessarily make them family.

When my dear Aunt Mary became very ill, I wanted to be present during this difficult time. I wanted to give something back to the people who are forever bound to me through love. As I stayed present with my Aunt Mary while Uncle Bob played cards with his friends and went to the movies, as I helped to feed and dress her, as I looked into her eyes and smiled, I was overcome with emotion. These people had become my true family and I was so much closer to them than many of those who share inherited traits with me. When my aunt finally passed away, my heart broke in places I didn’t know it could – I had lost a big piece of it.

My son playing with his "non-officially" related cousins

My son playing with his “non-officially” related cousins

I had a similar experience growing up with my grandmother and grandfather. Both of my parents’ fathers had died before I was born, and my paternal grandmother passed away after having seen me only once when I was just one year old. My maternal grandmother battled cancer throughout my childhood and passed away when I was in the ninth grade. So the grandparents I refer to were actually our neighbors.

When my mother returned to work, she asked a retired woman in the neighborhood to help with afterschool care for me and my sisters. However, Edna and her husband, Septimus, became so much more – they became our grandmom and grandpop. They became a very special part of my life, sharing everything from school days to birthdays. Septimus passed away when I was a freshman in college and when my beloved grandmother passed away in 2001, I felt as though a piece of my life had died too. I assure you that in all the years I was blessed to have her in my life, her homemade cookies, cakes, and pies tasted no less delicious and her presence in my life was no less special because we were not related by blood.

Now the same need for family must be fulfilled for my son. He too is an only child, and my husband and I are not close with all of our immediate family members. So, we have looked outside of those relationships for aunts, uncles, and cousins. As you can see from the snapshots, my best friends and their families have been very present in my son’s life. He calls them aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are the ones who make the effort to stay in touch across the miles, to send my son special gifts, to visit or host us when we visit them. They are the ones who support us in raising him, uplift us when we experience life’s challenges, and celebrate when we share our joys. They are our family and we treasure them!

Andrew's Aunt Karen and my best friend since the seventh grade

Andrew’s Aunt Karen and my best friend since the seventh grade

Do you have a special person who has become family even though they are not related by blood? I would be interested to hear your story about that treasured relationship!