The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a Family Tree

I’m the unofficial pictorial historian of our family. When our dad passed away a few years ago, my siblings gave the OK for me to take the old framed black and white family photos. 

Nothing excites me more than to see the faces of my long-gone relatives adorning the wall at our cabin. I see several photos of my paternal and maternal grandparents and their families. I see one of my maternal grandma with a cigar in her mouth laughing with her sisters. There’s a photo of my Great Grandparents standing on the stoop of an old clapboard house. There’s another one of them sitting in high back chairs holding hands at their 75th wedding anniversary celebration. 

I see photos of my mom and her brothers and sisters. I see my dad posing with his siblings. I always chuckle when I see it because my dad has pants that are two inches too short (probably a hand me down from one of his five older brothers). There’s my mom’s engagement photo and another of my dad when he was in the Army. I see my Grandpa John on his beloved horse Trigger. A favorite photo is of my paternal grandparents on their wedding day. 

I see old-time skirts, giant bows, suspendered trousers, fedoras, and yards of lace and taffeta. I see people named Elizabeth, John, Vicki, Francis, Robert, Joe, Cecilia, Rosie, Edwin, Alois, Virgil, James, Clarence, Frank, Tony, Veronica, Anthony, Martin, Louisa, and many others I can’t name. 

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Oh, how I wish I could step into the photos and stand beside them. Questions run through my head like I wonder what they were thinking when this photo was snapped? What dreams did they have for their life? Were they happy? What was it like living with no electricity? What were their fears? What brought them joy?

Some people start searching for their ancestors by logging on to sites, typing in vital records, and then filling in a family tree. Not me, I don’t just want to know names and dates on a page. I really want to know them. 

Were they an introvert or an extrovert? Were they a peacemaker or a lover of conflict? Were they faith-filled or a doubter?  Were they kind and compassionate or did they harbor hate? Were they optimistic or were they a fatalist? Were they content or frustrated with their lot in life? Did resiliency come easy for them or were they often ready to throw in the towel? Was their life filled with triumphs or trials? Were they inclusive or were they bigoted? Did they treat their spouse with respect or disregard their feelings? Were they a family man/woman or did they regard children as if they were meant to be seen but not heard? 

I’ll never get to fully know my ancestors on this side of heaven, but when I see them face to face you can bet that I’ll have my questions ready for them.

Family Reunion

This past weekend’s beautiful warm weather had my siblings and me organizing an impromptu family reunion at a nearby winery. As I sat around the table and looked at my cousins, I was reminded that even though those ancestors are long gone, I can see physical similarities of them in my cousins-the shape of our faces, our deep-set eyes, our average height, the reddish tint to some of my cousins’ hair that’s (just like my grandma had), the blue eyes on a few faces (just like my grandpa’s). 

There are behavioral similarities of our ancestors among us cousins too. How fast we talk. How loud we talk. The way we laugh. How we love to tell stories. All traits we got from our Grandpa John. 

Our Inherent Inheritance?

Like it or not, we inherit physical traits from our ancestors. We have no say in what our skin, hair, or eye color will be, the shape of our nose, or how tall or short we will be. 

We inherit personality and character traits and beliefs too. Positive ones like a sense of humor, a quick wit, a kind heart, a joy-filled spirit, a resilient nature, a strong work ethic. 

Negative traits too.  

Perhaps our ancestors were plagued by poverty and this created a scarcity mindset. Maybe sickness created excessive worrying. A lack of education created low self-esteem. Or sudden loss created bitterness. 

Our ancestors may be long gone, but the effects of their ideas and beliefs can be felt today and passed down from generation to generation. Their life experiences can become part of the way we respond to experiences, how we think, how we dream, and how we behave.

There’s good news though! We don’t have to be like them.  We have a say in what personality and character traits we want to carry on.  

Do we want to be kind or selfish? Confident or insecure? Gutsy or fearful? Generous or selfish? Filled with joy or bitter? Cheerful or gloomy?

Studying our ancestors gives us a sense of identity, it helps us to understand who we are, it allows us to hold on to memories, reflect on simpler times, and pick out the personality and character traits we want to emulate. 

Grandpa John’s resiliency through hardship…you bet!

Aunt Betty’s sweet demeanor…yes.

Uncle Larry’s sense of humor…yep. 

Aunt Agnes’ strong faith…absolutely!

But here’s one of the best parts: Studying our ancestors can also help us decide who we don’t want to be like. 

The uncle who has a tendency to tip the bottle excessively…Nah. 

The aunt who loves to gossip…I don’t think so. 

The bossy great aunt…nope.

The cousin who deals in illegal stuff…absolutely not! 

Pass It On 

I read this quote in a book I read recently: “Every move we make, every risk we take, sets the stage for someone else. Your brave is someone else’s breakthrough. We think that what God does for us is for us, but it’s never just for us. It’s always for the third and fourth generations. When we win the day, in our own unique way we enable future generations to dream a little bigger and think a little longer.” 

Our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews are all watching us. They’re constantly absorbing verbal and nonverbal cues we give them. They are, as they say, “like sponges”. The question is: What do we want them to absorb? Do we want them to: 

  • Push through difficulties?
  • Have a strong work ethic?
  • Help the down-and-out?
  • Be kind and generous?
  • Think of others first?
  • Listen well?

These are all things that can be passed down from generation to generation. 

I was fortunate enough to do an audio recording of my dad a few years before he passed away. During the recording, I asked him stories about his childhood, home life, the early years of his marriage to my Mom (B5K-before 5 kids). There are so many traits I hope I’ve taken from him. His genuine love of the land. His deep gratitude for the gifts of the Lord. His humble demeanor. His willingness to help the unfortunate. His allegiance to his country. His faith in God. His belief is that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. And the deep love he had for my Mom. 

With no disrespect intended, and understanding that no one is perfect, there are a few personality and character traits that I don’t want to take from him (I’m pretty positive my own kids won’t want to take some of mine either). His lack of adventure. His distaste for change. His stubbornness. 

Friend, we can learn from our past — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can follow the well-worn path of those highly esteemed ancestors that have gone before us, but we don’t have to travel the same road as some of our less-than-stellar ancestors did. We can make new treks instead of stepping right into their old ones. 

And who knows-just like the “Remember the Alamo” battle cry, the next generation might one day say things about us like: Remember (your name here)! She (or he) never gave up! She stood for what she believed in! She triumphed over her trials! She had a grateful heart! She did what was right! 😊

Hey, before I go, are any of you researching your genealogy? If so, have you found out any interesting facts about your ancestors? Send me a message, I’d love to hear about it! 

xoxoxo

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