Learn Your Family History While You Still Can

Little things, big things to remember later

Couple on the beachCredit: image courtesy of Mike Baird through Flickr.com

Do you know the color your grandparents eyes? Where they grew up? Do you know how your mother and father met? Have you ever wondered what it was like for them during the war?  Those questions are what inspired this lens.

This year when you gather together and visit, ask them questions. Write down their answers. Even record the conversations you have.  Too many of us don't even think of the questions until it's too late to ask.

Think how different your children's lives are today, compared to when we grew up, let alone when our parents grew up. Some of their lives weren't that far from "the Little House on the Prairie." What was it like living then? Our family used to laugh, sitting around the dinner table, when Dad would tell us (again) how he walked five miles to school every day. Sometimes it was three miles, some days seven. We would joke that his walk was in the snow, and he was barefoot at that.

Our children find it hard to imagine life without technology, while many for some of our parents radios had just become popular. The latest generation won't know what life was like without social media, a computer or a cell phone. Even for some adults those days seem vague. But I don't want to forget. I don't want my family to forget. 

Part of my need to suggest this comes from realizing how important and necessary some of the questions will be. Another part comes because I can't ask Mom anymore. Every day when I visit her Memory Care home I see several dear men and women who are unable to remember very much, or to talk about it if they do. And I know each of them had interesting, full lives. You can see it in the pictures in their rooms. Smiling families, weddings, new babies, pets, all look out from framed photos. Those are the memories we should hold on to as our parents age. Knowing--and remembering--moments from their lives eases the sorrow we may face as they age.

Family Tree Workbook for Your Family

Let the whole family contribute

Family Tree Memory Keeper: Your Workbook for Family History, Stories and Genealogy
Amazon Price: $19.99 $8.75 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 25, 2014)
Here is a book to spark curiosity and questions. It has the basic family tree, plus there is room for fun, facts and even recipes. If you don't want to write your own questions, this is a great place to start.

Three Important Areas to Cover

The essential, the necessary, and the just-plain-fun

I’ve found three general topics that I believe are important for a son or daughter to discuss with their parents. No doubt, you will think of even more.

The first encompasses the legal issues. Most families understand the need these days for the AHCD (Advanced Health Care Directive). I hope you have those in place, not just for your parents but for your whole family. If you don’t, most state health websites have a form, or your attorney or doctor will.

I’d recommend you discuss it with your/their physician or attorney for what is recommended.  Each state’s requirements may differ so it is important to check.  Social services or other senior care offices, can provide you with information or direct you to where you will find it.

An AHCD includes a living will in which each person expresses their desires in case they are incapacitated, such as whether they would want life support, etc. A DNR (do not resuscitate) form should be there as well. It will also name who they would choose to make decisions for them if they cannot, with a durable power of attorney. Without the power of attorney, any company you call regarding your parent legally can’t divulge any information to you. That can complicate getting care and aid for them if it is necessary. 

While this is often the most difficult of the topics to talk about openly, it is so important to get past that. It’s something that should be done while each family member is able and capable. This is what we’ve personally seen in our circumstances, not legal advice, but I want you to know what was needed. Be sure get local legal or medical advice from someone who knows your parent.

Dad had handled many of the tougher issues, like a living will, a list of accounts, insurance policies, burial preferences. That made it so much easier when assistance was needed for their care and finances. Still, I have so many questions now that he is gone and Mom is unable to remember now.

Do You Know Your Family History?

You may need it in the future

Grandmother walking with grandsonCredit: Image courtesy of Va Sfak, Still moments, through flickr.comThe second category of importance is your family health history. I’m sure you’ve sat in at least one doctor’s office filling out medical forms asking if any of your relatives have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and so on and so on down the page. Do you know the history other than your parents? It would help your entire family, including future generations, to get that down on paper (or a spreadsheet of course).

But in addition to the health issues, try to find out some of your genealogy, and flesh it out. Even in you don’t have an interest in researching back into your family’s ancestry, still find out the basics on your parents, their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings. Who lives here in the United States (or your home country)? A simple family tree can get you started. Many of our grandparents came from another country? Try to get the details of how and when. That story alone might surprise and fascinate you. Do you still have family in that country? Names and cities would be good! Addresses invaluable. And remember to get it from both your mother and your father. We found Dad had traced his side and developed quite a lot of information on his ancestry, but we neglected doing very much on our mother’s side. I never thought much about it, but now often wish I knew more.

We recently learned we still have a lot of extended family in my mother’s ancestral country. Now it would be interesting to see where they all fit on that family tree. Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated. There are several mind mapping apps out there for your computer that will include a basic layout for a family tree. xMind is one I use all the time and it’s free.

Now for the Creative Stuff

Even silly questions can spark wonderful memories

While the big questions are more pressing and more necessary, the fun questions are what I am curious about now. That’s the third topic. Learn about their daily lives, the little things, what they liked, how they lived. It should be fun for the entire family, maybe even a new tradition. Your children will enjoy the questions and the answers too. It may stretch their imagination to hear how their differently ancestors lived just a generation or two removed. The next time you get together, try some of the suggestions listed below.

You might be shocked at some answers. I have a friend who didn’t know until recently her father was wounded–and a hero–in World War 2. He never talked about it. My grandparents were forced from their home in a flood. What about your parents? There is so much they may have lived through that we don’t think to ask about. When you look at old pictures–especially formal ones–have you noticed how rarely you see as much as a grin? Do you think they were just always that serious? Wouldn’t it be fun to know what made them smile and laugh?

All the questions may not be so fun for your parent to talk answer. Times of suffering and loss will carry bittersweet, maybe painful, memories even now. But it’s your history and whether good or bad, you should know it. You should be able to share it with your grandchildren. If your parents are gone, are their aunts or uncles available? Find out what their favorites were, what brought them joy Did the joy filled moments outweigh the difficult ones? Every one has a story to tell. Ask now!

Don't forget Mom's Side

Conversations with My Mother: A Keepsake Journal for Celebrating a Lifetime of Stories (AARP®)
Amazon Price: $12.95 $7.25 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 25, 2014)
Many families will get the descendant line of the father, but overlook the details of the mother's side of the family. It is one she can fill out herself, so start one early. You can do it with her too over a cup of tea.

Start with these Fun Questions

Print it out or write your own, then prepare for some surprises

Every day I could add more questions to this list. I bet you could too, and I'd love to hear them all. You might even use a voice app on your phone so you don't forget any answers. But writing them down in a book is a special way to remember and share the history you may discover, something solid to pass along to the next generations. However you do it, have fun!
  • How did your parents meet?
  • How did your father propose to your mother? What was their song?
  • Did they go on a honeymoon? Where to?
  • Did they live through the Great Depression?
  • Where were they during World War 2 or any other war?
  • Did they go through any hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes?
  • What did they like to do when they were growing up?
  • What was their community like?
  • What traditions do they remember from their childhood?
  • What are their best memories?
  • What is their worst memory?
  • What color were their parents eyes?
  • When they were young, what did they want to be when they grew up?
  • What was the favorite recipe their mom (or dad) fixed for them?
  • What were their parents like when they were young? Were they fun? Happy?
  • Did/does your father like train sets? What were his hobbies?
  • Did they like to read? What was their favorite book?
  • What was their favorite car?
  • Did your dad have a favorite sport (then and now)? Did your mom?
  • Are they spiritual?
  • What is their spiritual story? How did they come to believe what they do?
  • How has their faith affected their lives?
  • Where was their favorite vacation spent?
  • Was your dad handy?
  • What was their best subject in school?
  • If they went to college, what was their major? Which school?
  • Were they listening when The War of the Worlds was first aired on the radio? Were they frightened?

It's Easy to Start

You may not want to stop

Grandmother HugCredit: image courtesy of by donireewalker through FlickrYou can see the questions are endless! Looking at this list, it clearly is not all for one sitting! While some questions may not interest you right now, as you age chances are you will want to know. Or your children may ask to know.

We’re already past the stage where we can get answers from Mom, and Dad is gone. Iit’s the family and their personal history I now wish I had more of. I’m curious about their younger years, about my grandparents.

As our parents age, it ‘s reassuring to know what full lives they had, how much they have lived through. Think of all they’ve seen during the last hundred years, how much every day life has changed since their youth. From first televisions, first dishwashers, first computers, to the wars, the disasters, they’ve lived through so much! Try to get the answers while you still can!

A Family Tree and More

Record both sides of your family

Our Family Tree: A History of Our Family
Amazon Price: $9.99 $8.77 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 25, 2014)
Another good choice that includes both family tree information and room for details about each person. Nice to put a background to the names on the tree. Even if it doesn't seem that important at the moment, you will be pleased to have the knowledge later.