Monday, June 11, 2012

Family Tree History

Grandpa Phil

My Father-in-law rocks. In the nearly 10 years I have been married to my sweet, charming husband I have never entirely figured this man out. He is something of an enigma. On the surface he is your garden variety Crusty Old Man, but he is anything but ordinary. He's witty, sarcastic and aloof and he never agrees entirely with anything anyone says, just on principal. That includes himself. He can build anything from a few scraps of wood and some rusty old nails. I swear, he barely needs tools.

He lives on cigarettes and green smoothies and has an entourage of well dressed Southern women who pay him to fix their houses and lose to them at cards. He is a carpenter by trade and a gold and diamond prospector by hobby and he has more books than house. His best friend (outside of his well-dressed lady friends) is a retired emu-farming hobbyist with whom he agrees on nothing. Not politics, not religion and certainly not the rules of the card game they play, often into the wee hours of the morning.

Mr Nall's Emus

He unapologetically ignores birthdays and Christmas and all other major life events, but once in a while, for no reason at all, a package will arrive in the mail and you never know what will be inside; a flashlight, a set of clips in various sizes or interesting rocks. Once we got a book on raising milk goats.

 Several years ago, before James was even born, he sent us one such package. Inside was a story book he had written, complete with blanks where the pictures should be and an invitation to draw. The book was about his mother, who was a child at the end of WWI, and the day she met his father, who was 18 and heading off to war. I was smitten. How cool is that? The story started a flood of questions about Great-Grandma Anna, about WWI and about Grandpa Phil. Did Grandma Anna have brothers and sisters? Did Great-Grandpa come back from the war? What was his mom's name?

Zach called Phil to thank him and told him how interested the kids had been in his story. A few weeks later another package arrived; photos of ancestors going back to the Civil War, names and dates of ancestors going back, in some cases, to the American Revolution. Among these treasures, there was an interview of Zach's Great-Great-Grandfather James, who had fought at the siege of Vicksburg, by one of James' daughters. It was fascinating. He talked about trading coffee and cigarettes with the Confederate soldiers one day and the next day going out on the battlefield to fight them. He talked about running so low on supplies like paper that they printed newspapers on pieces of wallpaper. Reading these words, written by an actual relative, the History of the American Civil War was alive.

I decided then and there that we needed to start learning about history from front to back, starting with recent history and working our way back. Treasures like these, people who can give context and voice to the events that made the world what it is today, are still around. My parents grew up in the 1950s and came of age during the Vietnam war. Zach's Dad grew up during WWII and our grandmothers were kids during the Great Depression. We have neighbors that lived in Eastern Europe and Greece in WWII and there is a nun at our church, about the same age as my parents, who grew up in Vietnam. Learning about Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages is great, and I know someday we'll have a lot of fun with that, but these people are here now offering a perspective that is invaluable.

Then, as we work backwards on the family tree, we can work in photos, interviews and stories passed down to us from those who have passed on. We can visit the sites where history happened and populate it in our imaginations with real people. People who might have known our Great-Great-Grandpa James, or our Great-Grandma Jennie.

The Big Girls at Historic Washington State Park, Arkansas

So far, the plan seems to be working. My previous efforts to interest them in history fell a little flat, but this seems to have ignited the spark. Spark, in my experience, is the main ingredient for learning. 

 P.S. If you are interested in a family history project of your own, Climbing My Family Tree has some great geneology journaling sheets for kids.

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