Maintaining links of family history

January 02, 2004|by Chris Copley

The holidays have passed. Aunts, uncles and grandparents (or grandkids) have returned home. Family gatherings have ended.

But as relatives disperse, so do opportunities for youngsters to hear stories about family history. Maybe Grandpa drones on about how things were when he was a boy, but he is a link of living history. He may remember the Great Depression, Prohibition, early automobiles, family members who fought in World War II, the family's best cooks, the toys he and his siblings fought over.

Hagerstown resident Elizabeth Bonebrake plays that role for her grandsons. She tells them things were not always as they are now.

"My sister and I were the only two grandchildren. Way back then, we were surrounded by a big family," she says. "We live an entirely different life now.


"Here I am a grandmother, and I'm still working. When I think of my grandmother at my age, so entirely different. I often relate these things to my grandchildren."

Passing on family stories is not simply a good idea, it is vital, according to professional storyteller Donald Davis. Davis, author of the book "Telling Your Own Stories," grew up with family stories in the mountains of North Carolina. They were always part of family get-togethers, reminding him of what his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did.

To him, this is the most important legacy an older generation can pass on to a younger generation.

"You can't answer the question 'Who are you?' unless you know your family legacy," Davis says. "You have no way to define yourself, your culture, your traditions, all the things that sum up who you are."

Holiday celebrations typically stand prominently in family memory. Emmalou Schwagel of Boonsboro says Christmas was a special time when her nieces and nephews were younger. With no children of her own, Schwagel enjoyed telling stories to her sister's children.

"My sister has five children. I was there for their births and stayed with my sister for a month after each was born," Schwagel says. "My Christmases were special. They always liked to come here. I do talk about family history with them."

Schwagel says her sister grew up in Kansas in the late 1920s.

"We were dust storm children," she says. "Her children are curious about our history. I remember some things and my sister, Ruth, remembers others."

Schwagel tells stories about her mother moving to Kansas from Illinois to teach, about the one-square-mile wheat farm her father homesteaded, about her grandfather - a literate man who enjoyed reading Shakespeare - caring for his wheelchair-bound wife, about the pinto beans brought to her father by the Mexican migrant workers who helped every year with the wheat harvest, about Schwagel's work as a pilot trainer during World War II.

Davis says family stories are important. As a youngster, he didn't always appreciate his elders' stories, but as he grew older, his viewpoint changed. Now he treasures the tales of his forebears and urges grandparents to tell youngsters about their earlier lives.

But tell stories that make family come to life, Davis says.

"What doesn't work is to deliberately tell stories or remember happenings from the past," he says. "Kids hear 'history' and say 'That's so boring.'"

But what's interesting, Davis says, is recalling places and people. Grandparents can tell grandchildren about the school they attended, or about their favorite toys, or about what they did to celebrate holidays. Connect with what kids are familiar with.

Talk about being young and growing up, he says.

"My son got his driver's license, and, the next time he saw his granddaddy, he asked what his first car was," Davis says.

Schwagel is happy her family history is being passed to the next generation.

"Sometimes it takes a lot of repeating of things for the children to make it a part of them," she says. "But I think it's very important. I don't think families do that much anymore."

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