ICYMI: The gift of family history

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 24 November 2014.]

Poppa and Brenda Lambert

When I was a child, I became very interested in family history. At the unusual age of seven, the stories of my forebears were more fascinating than the cartoons on television. I could listen for hours to my maternal grandmother as she told stories of her past.

Fifteen years ago this week I said my last goodbyes to my father, George Richard Lambert (1925–1999). My father grew up in East Boston, Massachusetts, at the height of the Great Depression, and he fought in World War II. When my dad died, my elder daughter Brenda was only four years of age. Now a college freshman, she still fondly remembers the stories I told her about the Lambert grandparents she hardly knew.

As a child, each night Brenda had a bedtime story read to her. But one evening shortly after my dad died, she asked me to “Tell me a story your daddy told you.” I struggled trying to recall one of the familiar bedtime stories Dad had read, but found that I was going to have to improvise. I said, “Why don’t I tell you about a story about your grandfather [her ‘Poppa’] when he was your age.”

So it began, with a story about my dad playing in the street as a young boy and having his foot crushed by an ice truck. Brenda then wanted to know why trucks delivered ice. So history and genealogy were combined. Another night, the story had Poppa going to Fenway Park to see Babe Ruth play against the Red Sox, or Poppa going off to fight in the Second World War. In effect, the tradition of conveying family stories had a different spin on it, and I realized that a fascination with genealogy and family history was being planted in my daughter’s mind early on.

The stories told to me nearly four decades ago shaped the course of my own career.

If you have a young child, a grandchild, or nephews and nieces, try sharing stories about their ancestors. The stories told to me nearly four decades ago shaped the course of my own career. I had a better understanding of social studies and American and even world history because I could see where my own ancestors fit into the context of what I was learning in school. It’s a gift I bestowed on my daughters, and in a greater sense telling and retelling these stories allowed the memories of my dad and mom to live on beyond the years they were given.

Share a family story at Thanksgiving, and make it a tradition that carries on throughout the year.

About David Allen Lambert

David Lambert has been on the staff of NEHGS since 1993 and is the organization’s Chief Genealogist. David is an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of genealogy and history. His genealogical expertise includes New England and Atlantic Canadian records of the 17th through 21st century; military records; DNA research; and Native American and African American genealogical research in New England. Lambert has published many articles in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Rhode Island Roots, The Mayflower Descendant, and American Ancestors magazine. He has also published A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries (NEHGS, 2009). David is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass., and a life member of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati. He is also the tribal genealogist for the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians of Massachusetts.

6 thoughts on “ICYMI: The gift of family history

  1. I regret never hearing anything about my grandparent’s history. After my mother’s sister sent her a copy (handwritten) of their family tree my sister asked my paternal grandfather, who lived with us about his family and we just gave us one fact. Another time he told he that his oldest brother went west (they lived in Canada)and was never heard from again. He moved into our house when I was 5 and those are the only two things that remember him telling me about his family history.
    Now I’m a grandmother and I don’t think that there is anything special about my history. I remember the day that JFK died and I remember falling asleep when man first walked on the moon. I don’t remember life without TV (I was 3 when we got one) but it was a 7 inch black and white one that was a huge wooden box. Then we got a 10 inch screen which periodically had problem with the horizontal screen and picture went up until we went to the back of the TV and turned the horizontal thing until it maintained a still picture. I remember having 2 TV stations and when ABC came on air and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and hearing about how the TV stations had to fly the film back to NY before we could see it and that one of the TV stations had engine problems before they were half way to the US and they had to fly back to London so the other TV station showed the event first. To me they aren’t special but probably 100 years ago they will be. These facts would probably amaze my grandchildren who have Netflix that they can watch cartoons in color 24/7. And their TV has never experienced a horizontal problem. Several years ago my grandson (who was 7) was upset when he couldn’t watch his favorite cartoon in the afternoon on a weekday because the internet wire to the house had been broken when the people who were installing his basketball net dug in the wrong place.

  2. David,

    Most of us probably lament not writing or recording family stories more often.

    For my birthday, my daughter bought me a subscription to book that will be hard bound, based on dozens of diverse questions she selects from a list about my life and family

    You can elect not to answer a question or modify it. For example “tell me about your mom when you were young” I modified to simply ‘tell me about your mom’. I replied with a chronology from birth to death covering personality, marriage, occupation, religion, political view etc. You answers can be as long or brief as you wish.

    I highly recommend it

    https://new.storyworth .com

  3. Learning from our children is a wonderful idea. My widowed mother lived a mile from our family and would take one of our two children for a sleepover every Friday. She would tell them stories of her youth in western Canada’s frigid prairies that I never heard. Like all of us, I suppose, when we’re parents we are too busy to sit and tell stories, or we don’t think the children will be interested in the “mundane” things that went on. I’m going to ask my kids to tell me a story, too!

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