I tell the smallest ones that their great-grandmother always used to tell her grandchildren they smelled "like a May morning!" after a bath. I tell them how I could always count on their great-great-grandfather to fix my toys when they broke. I tell the oldest one—now 12—about the people I've discovered on our family tree. And to my surprise, she listens with rapt attention.
I started telling her about my genealogy adventures soon after I met her. She is my daughter's step-daughter and came into our lives when she was seven. Her first encounter with my ancestors came when the two of us went to Plimoth Plantation with a church group. We went into each of the small, thatched-roof cottages there, and I pondered aloud with her about what life must have been like for the Pilgrims. We came to the "home of John Alden," and I told her that he was my 9th great-grandfather. She spoke briefly with the Alden re-enactors in the little house, and giggled as we walked away. "Is he really your 9th great-grandfather?" she asked. I explained that they were just actors, but that I really was related to John Alden. She's always remembered that.
Over the next year, she seemed to take an interest in any of the genealogy discoveries I tried to announce to the family. While everyone else smirked and rolled their eyes, she seemed to hang on my every word. I thought she was just being polite. But then I started talking about a "genealogy field trip" to New Hampshire to look for ancestral evidence, and she begged me to take her along.
I packed a lunch for the two of us, brought my notes and charts, and we headed off. On the hour-and-a-half drive to our destination, I talked to her about our quarry: my husband's great-great grandfather, who was allegedly an Indian. Our first stop was the city cemetery. The woman at the cemetery office told us that, yes, there was a Thomas Perkins buried there, and she gave me a map to the gravesite, as well as a copy of the interment card for that plot. I grew excited as I read the names on the interment card—I knew I'd hit the jackpot. My granddaughter shared my excitement and eagerly explored the graves with me when we finally found the family burial plot. We made a crude rubbing of Thomas' headstone for her to take home.
As I drove out of the cemetery, we chatted excitedly about our find. "Now who is Thomas again?" she asked. I thought maybe I should temper her enthusiasm. "You know," I said, "that Thomas isn't really your grandfather."
"I know," she answered, with a wisdom that belied her eight years, "but I don't do ‘steps'."
"Okay," I answered, relieved that she understood the complicated familial relationships, "In that case, he's your fourth great-grandfather."
I see my granddaughter a lot, and she almost never fails to ask me if I've discovered anyone new on the family tree. She was awed when I told her about by my great-grandfather's Civil War diary, which my brother had sent me, and when I finished transcribing it, she read every word. She became fond of "Mamie," my great-grandfather's first-born child, who died shortly after his return from active duty. When I announced that I wanted to go on another field trip to the cemetery where my great-grandfather is buried, my genealogy sidekick was more interested than ever and shared my hope that we'd find out more about little Mamie.
After a bit of walking around in the cemetery, we found the graves of my great-grandparents . . . and Mamie. My granddaughter was especially excited, as if she'd actually encountered Mamie herself. We both felt a tug at our hearts when we discovered Mamie was only 14 months old when she died, on August 26, 1865. I think my granddaughter was crying, though I'm not sure. She picked some wildflowers growing nearby and laid them on the grave, and sat by the headstone for a few minutes while I continued looking for signs of other ancestral kin. Mamie had become a real person for her, a little baby whose loss was to be mourned, 139 years after her death.
I marvel at my granddaughter's interest and often wonder where I went wrong with my own kids. But the answer is easy: I didn't talk to them about their heritage when they were small. They didn't have a sense of their own history, beyond their grandparents. I hadn't developed a real interest myself until they were adults, and by then the people I discovered on my family tree were "a bunch of dead people we never heard of," according to my son. In my youth it never occurred to me that teaching your family their history has to be an active, ongoing thing. In Native American cultures, ancestors are greatly revered, and their stories are carried on through a rich oral tradition. That's not a bad tradition to adopt. It helps make the ancient family real.
I've tried to guide my granddaughter's interest to her own family tree, as there are surely histories and mysteries to be mined there. I've sent her away with "homework," to interview her dad, his mother and his grandparents, and we've plugged her findings into a new family file on my computer. She's 12. She's interested in music, reading, playing with her friends, and boys. But she's also interested in genealogy, and maybe as she grows and matures she'll develop a sense of her own family history, and will keep that history alive with her own stories about the people in her family tree.