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South Bend Tribune (South Bend, IN)

Nourishing the Family Tree

by Nancy Johnson

Family get-togethers are an ideal time to fill in the gaps in family history and pass down wonderful stories, said Mary Waterson, who is in charge of the local history/genealogy room at the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend.

It's important -- especially for young people -- to have a sense of belonging and knowing their roots, Waterson said. "They have a better appreciation of life when they hear about problems people had in the past, and they have a better understanding of themselves."

Those who are hosting family gatherings can make them memorable for generations to come by planning activities, she said. She suggests:

  • Before the event, set the groundwork by asking the adults to bring old photos; heirloom clothes or objects; copies of handed-down recipes; slides or home movies; copies of birth, marriage or death certificates; and old family Bibles, which often record important events. Also, ask them to bring an entertaining family story.

  • At the event, ask people to pass around and help identify old unmarked snapshots, Waterson said. "Don't forget to use this opportunity to identify the photos," she added.

  • Bring out a tape recorder. Turn it on and let the older relatives reminisce. If you can, videotape them at the same time.

  • Take turns telling family stories. Ask the older people how they celebrated holidays long ago. Pass out photocopies of heirloom recipes with a story about the relative behind it. "As they share stories or papers, be sure to record the source, such as a birth record or a library book," Waterson said.

  • Have a digital camera available to photograph old snapshots. Then scan them into a computer and e-mail them to other family members. Likewise, important documents like marriage licenses and birth certificates can be scanned and e-mailed.

Before a family gathering, obtain a family tree form and fill out as much as you can before the gathering. Then ask the older adults to help fill in the blanks, suggested Bev Petersen, a genealogist who lives in Mishawaka. Her business, Petersen Reproductions, sells materials and gifts for genealogists, such as family tree forms, memory books and journals on her Web site, www.funstuffforgenealogists.com.

More family history activities are available at www.legacyproject.org. The site explains the Legacy Project, which is sponsored by the nonprofit group Parenting Coalition and Generations United. The project promotes passing down histories and life lessons from generation to generation.

"If you don't know your past, you won't be ready for your future," said Susan V. Bosak, national chair of the project. She's an intergenerational researcher and author of the book A Little Something, about the special gifts a grandmother and granddaughter give each other through the years.

There are many family-history activities on the Family Fun section of this site. Bosak especially recommends:

  • The Simple Family Tree. The user can download a free family tree chart and have parents and grandparents help fill it in. "Children often have a difficult time figuring out how they fit into their extended family. The Simple Family Tree is a good way to orient them," she said.

  • The Generations Scrapbook. Using downloadable forms, the child works with a grandparent to fill in stories about the grandparent's life and compares the past to the present.

  • The Calendar of Memories. Calendar pages for the year can be downloaded and made into a personalized calendar using old family photos for each month and can include a short story about each photo. "Give the calendar all at once or mail a month at a time, because kids love to get mail," Bosak suggested.

  • Family Keepsakes. Go through drawers and boxes and pull out a family heirloom to tell the children about. "This is a natural way to get questions flowing and engage all of the children's senses," Bosak said.

"Children thrive when they grow up feeling connected to those who have come before them," Bosak said. "And research shows that without a sense of helping those who come after them and working to create a legacy, adults lose meaning in their life. So legacy is fundamental to what it is to be human."

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Legacy Project