Scanning my mother-in-law’s photo collection has revived an interest in genealogy. Most of my family history is recorded in the Scandinavian countries, scrawled in town and church registers in languages that I can’t read. My husband’s family history is much different, with some of his ancestors living in the United States since the late 1600s…which means the family records are written in English. While tracing his family tree, U.S. history has become more real to me.
Unfortunately, most of his family members share the sentiments of Time magazine columnist, Joel Stein, who writes that he thought family history buffs are “massive dorks.” Okay, so the shoe fits…I am a massive dork.
The other thing you often hear about genealogy fans is that we spend more time digging for information on dead people, at the expense of making real connections with family members who are alive. Okay, so the shoe kinda fits here, too.
I thought about family stories and genealogy research while I was scanning those photos. Then one day, I was replying to a letter our nephew had written for a school project. I wanted to include something fun for him, and I started thinking about all those photos. I located a school photo of his mom when she was about his age, and included it with my letter.
Here comes the connection to my communication studies. Handwritten letters. Old photos. Stories. Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm Theory says, among other things, that humans are basically storytellers, and that our understanding of the world is formed by the stories that we hear and believe. When we communicate today, it is most frequently done electronically or by phone. Our communication is now ephemeral. We are not leaving sentimental letters, to be bound by ribbons and stored away for future generations to discover.
So I am resolved to begin writing letters to my children, nieces, and nephews. I can include photos, stories from before they were born, and tidbits from my genealogy research. For example, I can explain to my niece Lindsay that she and my husband can trace their hazel eyes to her great-great-great grandfather Thomas McCracken, and send along a photocopy of the Muster Roll when he volunteered to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Right there, under “Physical Description” – eyes: hazel. Not blue or brown, like the current generations. Hazel. And she’ll learn about it the old-fashioned way…a handwritten letter.