Parenting: Family history

David Murphy's family history leads back to a train depot in Montana.
David Murphy thinks kids should know about their backgrounds to get a larger sense of self in the present.
May 10, 2012 6:08:15 AM PDT
Every family has a story - some histories are fascinating, some seemingly mundane while others may be tragic. However to a kid, the revealed past can be a link to the present in their live. If anything, it might better explain who they are and give them a more fixed sense of their place in the world.

For people of European decent (like me), the story may include the "old country", religious persecution, plague, Ellis Island, The Mayflower, Colonial government or western expansion.

For African-Americans, the family story may begin across the ocean in countries like Kenya or Liberia, and might include tales of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, political empowerment and the struggle for equal rights.

Jewish families may be able to draw a link to ancient times and Old World trades, as well as the frightening 1930s and 40s in Europe, the Holocaust and escape to America.

For Hispanic families, the route to life in the United States might come from a vast number of directions, either the Caribbean, South America, or directly from Spain, including everything from the Conquistadors to Castro.

With each group, there is a rich cultural past, which may still survive in the current family setting. It springs from deep traditions whose origins become either muddled or lost altogether if one does not seek to explore and explain them.

There are a couple of ways to approach this important educational exercise with your children. I've shown my kids their roots, whether it's driving them by the house where I grew-up in Drexel Hill, or taking them by the apartment my wife and I shared in Wilkes-Barre when we were first married.

We even planned a driving trip one year which included a stop in Leavenworth, Kansas, where by parents met and were raised. This included a visit with an aunt and uncle who I had not seen in years, but who were happy to show my family some history that even I had never seen. They showed us an old farm house first built by my ancestors and the gnarled fence posts driven into the ground by my great grandfather and grand dad.

I visited the college where my other grandfather was a dean, and the house where they lived and where I visited them every summer as a kid.

This sort of lesson can be expensive or even impossible, especially if your ancestry was overseas. However there's another great resource that's free: the elders in your family. Ask your parents, aunts and uncles to shed light on the past. Ask them all, not just one.

Most, you might find, will be willing and glad to share, since most people like to talk about themselves and family history isn't always discussed. Get your kids in the room and your older relatives may become even more animated and anxious to share.

In my family, I asked my parents often about the past. That's how I know that some ancestors on my father's side came over on the second or third boat behind the Mayflower. They started the Morton Salt Company (although they sold the business before the development of the famous blue container with the girl in the raincoat and umbrella on the label).

I also learned how a woman on my mother's side had uncertain roots because she was found as an infant in the rubble of a wagon train which was attacked by a marauding band of Indians somewhere near Kansas - she being the only survivor.

A special note of thanks goes out to my beloved uncle, Dr. Donn B. Murphy of Arlington, Virginia, who compiled and web-published a personal history of his own recently.

It including an amazing array of photographs like the one I've chosen to front this blog, which depict my grandparents in various stages of their lives, from my grandfather's boyhood living in a Montana train depot (my great grandfather was the station master), to their days courting in Washington, D.C., and raising a family in Kansas.

These stories may not mean much to anyone else, but they mean the world to me and I've made sure my kids know them - after all, it's their story, too.

---David Murphy

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