In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

I Wish I Had Asked

Enriching your life through family stories and traditions

In the last year or two, I’ve become interested in learning more about my ancestors. In fact, many people these days seem to be hungry to learn more about their roots. Helped by relatives who had done their “homework”, I was able to learn a lot about my father’s family and to explore that extended family tree, seeing names of people who, although related, were little more than strangers to me. Not so for my mother’s family. I know very little about relatives outside of the last generation or two, people around me from the time I was born.

How could this be? My maternal grandmother had lived with us; she was my “roommate”. How could I never have asked about her childhood---where she was born and raised, how she met and married my grandfather, how she came to America with young children; my mother, an infant at the time? Looking back, this not asking, and now not knowing is both incomprehensible and sad to me.

Enter my long-time friend, artist Ralph Lowen. At a funeral recently, a friend told him, “I wish I had asked…” That started him thinking, “What do we miss when we don’t have an opportunity to ask questions of our family members at critical points in their lives? What do we want to pass on to future generations? What do we hope to learn from those who came before us? How much of our individual strength comes from knowing our family stories, and also from passing these stories and experiences on?”

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Out of this encounter he created I Wish I Had Asked: Our Stories, Our History which for now focuses on cancer patients, where people can ask those questions and share their life experiences. But, the application goes well beyond the critically ill patient.

So the point is, to gather the family stories. Write them down as a legacy, a living record for the generations to follow. It’s clear that customs, ceremonies, family rituals and stories, and individual life histories not only connect us to one another over generations but may provide a rich creative source of symbols and practices on which to draw upon for our own personal life experience.

You may want to consider what traditions or rituals are practiced in your family. Some may be linked to specific holidays or times of the year, but others may be uniquely significant to your own family. Ask older relatives to describe traditions handed down from generation to generation.

Perhaps you may even want to include the heritage of previous generations by incorporating these ancestral traditions and customs, or any variation of them, into your own life and with your children and grandchildren. Research your family’s country of origin. What traditions from the old country can you incorporate into your own life and the lives of your children?

Here are some ideas to help you get reacquainted with, or perhaps learn for the first time, interesting facts and traditions from your family of origin.

• Create a family tree.

• Record (audio or video) your grandparents and other elders, eliciting family history and family stories.

• Collect family recipes.

• Learn unique skills handed down through the generations.

• Collect “old wives tales.”

• Find out natural methods of healing handed down from generation to generation.

• Collect and catalogue documents (birth certificates, naturalization papers, wedding invitations, marriage certificates, passports, birth announcements, bibles, and the like).

• Gather family photos and memorabilia and make a video.

• Create videos with photos and music to celebrate milestones.

• Write a loved one’s biography and publish it for family members.

• Incorporate all of these into a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood.

It’s never too late to begin learning about your roots and history. Don’t wait until the elders are gone and it’s too late to ask. And who knows---maybe there are some real surprises and buried treasure awaiting your discovery.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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