The day my father died started like any other — daycare drop-off, drive to Starbucks, head into work. I had no idea my world was about to change forever. As a mother, losing him feels magnified because it means my young kids are losing out on knowing their grandfather.
I had a lot of years to learn from my dad, though, and a love of history is one thing he passed down to me. Give me a World War II book or a historical fiction novel, and I’ll devour it. I also love learning about my family history. I’m on Ancestry DNA, have 5,000 old photos from my grandmother scanned and saved, and love uncovering tidbits and stories gleaned from older relatives.
My dad also said moments of family togetherness were about “making memories,” even if it meant traveling a long way to be with each other for only a short time. These moments compound and establish long-term connections that transcend time and distance. But now, I struggle with how to maintain and make new memories for my kids that transcend his absence. Our family is still growing with new babies born each year. I’m overjoyed, yet each addition is another bittersweet milestone after the loss. The onus is on us to make sure our new family members learn about the ones they’ll never meet.
It’s not only my dad’s memory I want to keep alive either. Both my daughters have names honoring my grandmothers, and I want them to know about them too. To me, there’s a little magic in trying to know the people who came before us. To think about how their past led to our present and how the path of our lives will lead someday to someone else’s future.
Maybe, subconsciously, my drive to keep family history alive is a wishful hope for the preservation of my own memory after I’m gone. Whatever the motivation, I want to instill this interest in my kids too. So, how do I teach them about their own family history? Here is how I’ve started.
1. Tell the stories
Family stories, with their textures and details (and maybe even their punch lines), can give kids a real glimpse into not only the family facts but showcase the family personalities. Share memories when they hit, and if you’re extra motivated, capture your favorite stories somewhere — record a retelling at the next family gathering, write it in a journal, or capture it in a Google doc.
When your kids are really little, you can call out things your child has in common with the loved one you’ve lost to build their connection with them. Start small like, “You know who also loved chocolate donuts? Your papa.”
2. Make a kid-friendly memory book
This is on my Christmas to-do list for my kids. Photobooks can be quite an undertaking, but keeping them focused on a single story can make it easier to execute. For example, if you lost a loved one recently, you can add pictures of them with your child with a few memorable quotes.
If you want to share memories of a person they’ve never met, try a simple family-tree-style summary. You could add a childhood photo of a relative on the left-hand page, introducing the person – “This is Judy” – and then added one grown-up photo of that relative on the right-hand page: “Judy grew up to be your grandmother.” It’s a simple story but a special artifact.
3. Chart the family tree
I remember this as a favorite project in elementary school, and whenever my girls get their assignment, I need to remember to preserve it. Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and other services can automatically chart your tree, but going through the process of uncovering it with other family members is part of the fun.
4. Don’t wait, record their voice now
I put off capturing my family’s oral history because it was tough to think about and hard to coordinate, even with the help of apps that exist solely for this purpose. Like buying life insurance or writing a will, I probably put it off because I thought I had more time.
Without being morbid, you can find easy ways to capture the voices of your beloved family or friends now. Ask your parents to record a bedtime story for your child with a recorded book, or record a message in a stuffed animal your child can hear when they hug it at any time. It’s no substitute, but absent their presence, hearing a familiar voice from a loved one can be pretty special for you too.