How Well Do Your Grandchildren Know You?

Or your children, for that matter?

According to a 2007 survey, conducted by the genealogy website, a surprising number of U.S. adults lacked fundamental knowledge of their (grandparent’s) personal histories – one in three could not even name any of their great-grandparents. The site also found that only 43 percent of the adults surveyed knew both their grandmothers’ maiden names. Further, 22 percent did not know what their grandfathers did for a living, and 28 percent did not know if any of their ancestors had served in the military.

“A lot of kids don’t connect to their history because they’re not talking about it at the table.” link

That, and living a thousand miles apart–maybe for the remainder of their early lives, the two so far–and Ann and I will be placeholders for grandparents to our granddaughters, no anchor to their past, not keepers of the family history.

But then again, they may never care about those things. But it’s surprising how, eventually, most adult children wish they had more of their roots to draw from, to give them bearings and a sense of being part of something more than a single wandering suburban life. They wish they’d asked more questions–or been offered more of the places and events that made their grandparents who and what they were. Who are the people in those deep stacks of faded snapshots up in the back closet anyway?

I only had one grandparent in my growing up, really–my mother’s mother–who my kids called Granny Bea. Mom’s father died in a hunting accident when she was 11. My father’s mother and step father were always coldly referred to as “the grandparents”–people who should never have had children and certainly never wanted to be bothered having children of children around, much less telling them their life stories. So more the precious the one I had who loved me.

Bea died in 2002 at age 95. I knew her apartment, her voice, her cooking very well. I didn’t know who she was in many ways. I never gave her the opportunity or freedom to retrace her life as a farm girl in Murphreesboro, Tennessee.

Only recently in my mother’s retelling (she has made a couple of tapes of her life, my children have them) did I make the connection with the people we drove to see who had the enormous pig. It was my grandmother’s husband’s family. I wish I knew more of all this.

Thankfully, this matter of losing our individual and collective past is getting more attention in oral history efforts through local and academic grants and programs. And with the relative low cost and portability of digital recorders and cameras these days, most anyone can set aside some time to interview a grandparent.

Or the grandparent can take the initiative: tell your story in a journal with your grandkids name on it; get a hand held recorder; start a blog; self-publish a book and make a dozen copies at Kinkos with pictures scanned in. Do it now.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. One of my cousins on my dad’s side did this — he must have worked for several years to trace the history of our grandparents. He made a wonderful book, complete with photos and maps and made enough copies for everyone in the family. I treasure it, and bring it out to review. Am reading Rodger Cunningham’s Apples on the Flood and my cousin’s book was very helpful in comparing dates of probable emigration to the US.

    He included a few stories our grandparents told, as well as his father, my father and their siblings. And a copy from a page of my grandmother’s diary — she noted the weather, who visited, how many eggs were gathered, etc. each day. How very precious!

  2. Chasing family history can become an addiction. It was my father’s funeral that started me on my own quest over a decade ago. That was when a cousin handed me a printout from a genealogy program that did not match what was in our family bible.

    The search and research that followed led to proof that both of our families had misinformation stored in our respective oral histories.

    Over the years I have continued my search. My family history website, which I put online first in December of 1998, has led many distant cousins to get in contact with me. The addition of their family histories to my own has led me to see just how small and interconnected our world really is.

    Fred, spend a little time on, they usually allow a two week trial for free, you may be surprised how much you’ll find out about your own family…

  3. It was my quest to find more about my 5th great grandfather Soloman Washington, soldier in the War of 1812 and resident of Floyd County, that allowed me to find your blog–a real bonus!

  4. My grandfather would tell stories for hours when everyone was together unless a tape recorder was around. I remember my uncles trying to get him on tape secretly but he always found the recorder. They got him once but it was poor quality.Since he passed we have made an effort to get old photos and have them digitally repaired and then printed to display. I have a hallway that i am filling with these pictures. We have ours made here if anyone is interested my wife has the link on her blog also.