Grandparents: Share Your Stories NOW

Get Generations Telling Their Stories:
Survey says American kids need to know their grandparents

At first reading, I was surprised by an article in the December 20, 2018 “New York Post,” headlined “One-third of Americans can’t name all of their grandparents.” This finding is from a recent survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by Ancestry and conducted by One Poll.

Other nuggets:
• 34 percent of respondents can’t trace their family tree past their grandparents, and even that knowledge is incomplete.
• 21 percent of respondents can’t name even one of their great grandparents.
• 21 percent have no idea where any of their grandparents were born.
• 14 percent are unaware of how any of their grandparents earned a living.

But after I stopped to consider the poll’s finding, I realized the headline resonated with me because my father never discussed his parents. I barely knew their names, and I have no understanding or feel for who they were. I would love to have some knowledge of them; especially now that I have two grandsons, age 8 and 5, with whom I am very close. I am lucky to spend time with Finnegan and Wyatt frequently. They know my minutiae, call me silly nicknames, could tell you that my favorite color is green, and my top beach vacation locale is in North Carolina.( They might add that I’ll make them homemade oatmeal cookies whenever they like.)

Conversely, my father’s parents — my own grandparents — died when my Dad was still a teenager. I have one photo of each of them — that’s it.

When Finn was born, I created a digital scrapbook for him so that — among other reasons — he will feel a connection to my own parents (long deceased) when he is old enough to ask questions about his roots. When Finn’s brother Wyatt came along, I began a scrapbook for him, too. My favorite page in each of these books is a colorful tree that features both sides of their families, maternal and paternal, side-by-side in a 12” x 12” four-color book format. (See photo.) Someday, I hope and believe these family trees will be meaningful to my grandsons. For example, knowing that both of their maternal grandfathers were award-winning newspaper reporters may make these colorful men more real — and thus more meaningful — to my grandsons when they see the likenesses of these distinguished-looking reporters, Bill Storm and Charlie Bartlett, on their family tree.

The good news is, the Ancestry survey respondents want to learn more about their backgrounds. Eight in 10 say they care about their heritage, and they’re willing to learn how to ferret out information that will help them forge a closer connection to their ancestors.

“In recent decades, we’ve seen a major upswing in interest when it comes to researching family history, and this is largely due to the accessibility of historical information,” says Jennifer Utley, director of research at Ancestry.

She continues: “This valuable historical data is helping people paint a picture of their past, and the holidays are a great time to start investigating our own family history.”

“Most family history research starts with oral history, listening to the stories passed down from generation to generation,” says Utley. “Conversations during holiday gatherings can help us discover more than just what country our relatives migrated from, but also who they were as individuals — their stories, their dreams and lessons learned.”

In particular, the survey reports, Americans would like to know the following about their grandparents: stories of them when they were young; childhood memories; their heritage; life advice; their personal beliefs; health issues common to the family; general medical history; what kind of work they did; and best trips/places they’ve experienced.

Betsy Storm Chicago Personal Historian

The healing power of storytelling — even when it hurts

“Tell me your story,” a new friend might implore. Or perhaps a child making the transition into adulthood sits you down and demands, “Tell me your story — the real one, not the cleaned-up version.”

Our stories define us, especially because just like the human face, no two stories are exactly alike. And as research increasingly bears out, to tell your story is to be heard in a powerful way. But for many people, sharing the less-than-sunny sides of one’s personal biography isn’t easy. And that’s where a talented personal historian can enter the picture and help make the act of painful storytelling more palatable.

Sharing stories helps build (and even repair) bridges

One of the beauties of telling your life history — missteps and all — is that it starkly illustrates that the path to success is never a straight line. The lesson learned — that stumbling and sometimes getting tossed around on the way back up— is an essential part of any biography. Compelling stuff. Why? Because it’s dramatically, utterly and wholly human.

In a blog post on the “Entrepreneur” website, Matthew Toren writes, “It’s uncomfortable admitting to others your failures, struggles or other moments of weakness. That’s true for everyone, yet opening yourself up to moments of vulnerability is surprisingly gratifying. Fear is something we all experience. Be honest and open with the world about the good and the bad. You’ll be amazed at the reaction you gain from others.”

Along the same lines, from a blog post by Sherry Hamby PhD, tiled “Resilience and . . . 4 Benefits to Sharing Your Story” in “Psychology Today, “There is a lot of good advice out there about increasing resilience. I want to focus on the remarkable benefits of sharing your story. Emotional, autobiographical storytelling can be a path to truly owning your story. Further, by ‘giving it away,’ you can use your own journey as a means to help others on theirs.

She continues: “I have been surprised at the power of emotional, autobiographical storytelling. Emotional, autobiographical storytelling means writing about events and people that have mattered to you in your own life— not just describing the facts of your lives. Research shows that even brief autobiographical storytelling exercises can have substantial impacts on psychological and physical health even months after the storytelling. “

Let’s bring the issue of sharing difficult stories back to a personal level. Years ago, I’d been estranged from one of my children for a substantial period of time. In addition to simply missing him down to the cellular level over several painful years, there was shame attached to the emotional separation. Let’s face it, when a child stops communicating with his mom, many outside observers question the quality of that mother’s parenting.

Together again

Finally, when the chasm between my son and I was repaired more than a decade ago, I wrote a story about my experience for the “Chicago Tribune.” Titled “Out of the Picture,” the piece detailed the long journey to our reunion. It ended with these words from my son: “By the middle of my college years, I realized I missed my mom. After a slow, gradual and difficult process, we began rebuilding. Now things are great between us. A willingness to set aside past differences and acknowledge that we really love each other were critical factors in our reconciliation.”

Writing the article ushered in an unexpected sense of peace and closure. What’s more, I received phone calls and letters from people I had never met that wanted to share their own experiences of reconciliation. Publishing the story brought me a great dealing of healing and was also reassuring to others still in the midst of their reconciliation journeys.

As a personal historian, I understand that sharing difficult experiences is decidedly not for everyone. But nobody can underestimate the power of such stories to lift others up from their own tender and painful places. I like to think that a talented and compassionate personal historian can help a challenging life chapter unfold, and in the process, help the storyteller recover, bruises and all.

Bestselling author Melody Beattie puts it this way: “Live from your heart. Share from your heart. And your story will touch and heal people’s souls.”

The Power of Siblings: My Sister, Myself

Celebrating Easter in our Sunday best, 1960, with Leslie at left

Celebrating Easter in our Sunday best, 1960, with Leslie at left

A 2010 article in Time Magazine titled “The New Science of Siblings”
revealed fascinating developments about how siblings shape each other — for life: “At research centers in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere, investigators are launching a wealth of new studies into the sibling dynamic, looking at ways brothers and sisters steer one another into — or away from— risky behavior; how they form a protective buffer against family upheaval; how they educate one another about the opposite sex; how all siblings compete for family recognition and come to terms —or blows—over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.

“Siblings,” said family sociologist Katherine Conger in the Time story, Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

Wow — that’s a torrent of influence. I focus frequently on the sister-to-sister relationship because my closeness with my older sister is hard won. True to our surname, we battled many storms to achieve our current connection.

Leslie and I share a sibling story history as dramatic as any I know. Two years older than me, Leslie (“Lolly”) was a protective sister when we were growing up in rural Ambler, PA. We played together most of the time; there was only one other girl in the small enclave that passed for a neighborhood.

When our attachment waned as Les approached high school, her absence left a huge chasm. After all, she was smart, funny, and cool. While I wasn’t conscious of it at age 13, I think I hoped she’d be there to help me navigate own adolescence. However, it wasn’t in the cards. My lovely Leslie struggled with some serious personal challenges during her teens. As a result, we didn’t share secrets, midnight snacks or boyfriend anecdotes for several years.

Our closeness rekindled when I followed her (Was it conscious? I don’t know.) to American University in Washington, D.C., where we both pursued journalism degrees. (Dadles and bets in  '30s (2) was a well-known Philadelphia newspaper reporter). Our boyfriends were fast friends, and the foursome we shared still wins top billing among my fondest college memories.

In our fifties, Leslie and I were estranged for about eight years, amid a variety of difficult circumstances — including our difficult and sometimes divisive mother. When our mom died almost six years ago, Leslie and I were instantly, deeply reunited at our mother’s funeral when, to our surprise, we reached for each other’s hands and held on tight throughout the service. After that, as the saying goes, we never missed a beat. When I threw a book launch party in 2014, Leslie’s the one who collected money from sales of Bright Lights of the Second City, greeted guests, and helped pack up the whole shebang. A year earlier, when my husband and I renewed our wedding vows, my big sister walked me down the aisle.

When my phone rings these days, my called ID often flashes “LESLIE,” calling from Portland, OR. We sometimes talk thrice daily; it requires that degree of conversation to cover: the joys and challenges of adult children; the abundant love of grandchildren; fantasy vacations; the ups and down of men, jobs, and aging; and always, always, always our shared passion for liberal politics, a wide range of social issues, books, movies, music and a plethora of social issues. (Not to mention just plain sister silliness, even at ages 62 and 64.)

Leslie often reminds me that the sister-to-sister relationship is often regarded as the closest and most enduring a girl — of any age — can enjoy. Amen, Sister!