I asked my sister, who has no interest in the kind of distant family history I’ve devoted my life to digging up, to tell us what kind of family history she cares about. Here’s what she wrote:
When I was growing up, my mother attempted to collect all of the artifacts of our childhood into beautifully arranged scrapbooks. Over time the demands of the task got away her from her, and she started sliding mementos haphazardly between the pages for organization at a future date that never came. Eventually the books so teemed with keepsakes that she had to put them into bags to hold everything together. The results my sister and I half-bitterly, half-affectionately dubbed our “scrap bags.”
From then on when I imagined myself as a mother, I envisioned creating the kind of scrapbook that my mother abandoned. No milestone of my modern-day von Trapps would pass without pasting the proper documentation into an artistic page layout. Then, I actually became a mother, and realized that (1) my children will never wear matching dresses made from our window treatments, line up in declining size-order, and greet me musically after work, and (2) scrapbooks are easier to imagine than execute. So my girls, ages 2 and 4, currently have… “scrap accordion-folders!” Thanks to the Digital Age in which they’re growing up, their “scrap folders” are regrettably thin, but I still imagine that one day I will arrange these scraps into beautifully bound books they will always appreciate their mommy for having made.
For me, these scrap bags and scrap folders are what family history is about. What I want my daughters to know about their history is the same thing I want to know about my history—How did the narrative begin? What were the plot twists? My sensitive 4-year-old may grow up to be a famous artist. I want her to know that she drew her first recognizable stick figure before she turned 3. My active 2-year-old may grow up to be a star athlete. I want her to know that mommy was so worried that she did not walk at 16 months, she called Early Intervention (hopefully she will laugh, as I now do). These memories, whether they hold a lasting significance or not, create a life story.
On some level, however, I realize that these narcissistic self-portraits do not tell the whole story. My daughters’ lives did not simply begin at “The Presidents’ Hospital” in Bethesda; they began at the comedy club down the road where their parents went on their first date, they began at the hospital in Philadelphia where I was born and would later rotate as a medical student, they began decades before when their first American ancestors set foot in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
But, the further back you go, the less I am interested in being the one who does the curating. Genealogy has never been a personal interest of mine. What my sister and I do share, though, is an interest in origin stories. We’re just interested in different origins! I studied cognitive neuroscience and early childhood development, so I’ve always been interested in those early formative experiences that define a character and ultimately shape a life. I’ve often pored over the contents of my scrap bag to understand how I became me, and I similarly peruse my girls’ scrap folders to catch the emerging threads of narrative for the people they will become.
So, maybe my girls, like me, will turn to their scrap folders for answers about why they are who they are. Or maybe they’ll turn out like their Tante Tammy and ask questions about the things that happened before they were born. Now that I have children of my own, I realize that there is a spectrum of family history of which the contents of a “scrap bag” or “scrap folder” are only the beginning. It takes the whole range of family history — the immediate and distant past — to put our lives in context. Luckily between their mommy and their tante, my girls will have both covered!