Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday's Faces from the Past: Did Uncle Benji Smile?

It's up to us, before we join our ancestors, to keep the stories, photos, and memories of past generations alive for the benefit of future generations.

Here are just a few methods I've tried.
  • Tell ancestor stories with dramatic flair. Our ancestors really did lead lives that were courageous (pioneers), happy (family or success), sad (early death), challenging (bankruptcy), or something in between. Find the drama and accentuate it to bring these ancestors to life. My maternal grandma threw a suitor's engagement ring out the window when she refused an arranged marriage. Isn't that dramatic? Hubby's grandpa was a master mechanic who worked on an early automobile model, making his mark on history in a small but significant way. Telling dramatic stories over and over does, I'm happy to say, make an impression.
  • Put an ancestor's face on a T-shirt. I think Benjamin McClure looks ancestral (and characteristically resolute) on this T-shirt worn by his great-great-grandson. Did "Uncle Benji" ever smile? I can ask every younger relative who sees this shirt. In private, I bet he did. But this was his public face, as a civic leader. 
  • Make copies of ancestor photos and give them to siblings, cousins, grandkids. Include a note explaining who's who. Pick a special date--for instance, St. Paddy's Day, for Irish ancestors--and make inexpensive photos to send inside a greeting card. The more relatives who come to recognize ancestors by face and name, the better. Okay, I'm still the only person who can identify most older ancestors in photos, but I'm hoping that someday relatives will be able to pick out at least one or two individuals they didn't know before. Plus I'm glad to know that these photo copies are widely dispersed within the family, not simply stuck inside my files.
  • Tell stories about what ancestors didn't talk about. My immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents never spoke of the trip from their home towns in Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania to New York City. But knowing the name of the ships, the time of year, and length of the voyages, and the distance between the home towns and the ports of departure, I can weave together a pretty decent narrative for each one. No, they didn't come "cabin class." So this kind of story illustrates determination and perseverance (occasionally desperation).  
  • Remind young relatives who and what ancestors left behind. None of my immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents ever returned to their home towns after arriving in New York. Younger relatives are taken aback when reminded that these ancestors often left home at an early age (Grandpa Teddy Schwartz was 14), knowing that the journey would be one-way only. Imagine. 
I've seen examples of even more creative ideas, including ancestor playing cards, that are future possibilities. What ideas have you tried for getting the younger generation interested in the lives of their ancestors?

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