We’re All a Part of History

Today we have a guest blog from the lovely Jenny over at JenEric Generation. She’s a new personal historian and is quite the wordsmith. Enjoy! 

Hello, readers of Family Resemblance! My name is Jenny, and I write JenEric Generation–a place for discussing books, writing, and generally avoiding mediocrity in all areas of life. I am thrilled that Rachael invited me to be here today. Rachael inspired me to start my own business as a personal historian (still in the beginning stages), which has left me reflecting on why I love the topic of family history, and history in general.

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For most people, a love of history does not begin in high school. But for me, that is where it started. I believe that every student would love history, if only they were taught by the right person: someone who is passionate about the subject, and can articulate why it is important today.

The why it is important is the hard part. My high school history teacher made the past come alive by painting a picture that connected to the present, in one way or another. History is not just a long story. History is billions of people who have gone before us, living in their own corner of the earth, not constantly aware of the fact that they were part of a bigger picture. And in that sense, they were no different from us. In twenty years, our kids are going to be reading about the economic struggles in the United States in the early 21st Century, and it will most likely be summarized in a few paragraphs in a boring text book.

But you and me–we are part of that history right now, and we know it is more than that. Beyond those few paragraphs in a history text book, are thousands of smaller stories that help us understand human nature a little bit more.

Within the history that is deemed important enough to be included in a textbook, are the stories that paint individual family histories. My first awareness of the importance of family history came through the stories my dad told my siblings and me growing up. The story of my great grandfather, traveling to the United States from Germany. He was seven years old at the time, and his father gave him the family fortune to keep tied around his neck on the journey across the Atlantic. Because being robbed on a ship was common, my great-great-grandfather hoped that no one would suspect a child to be the keeper of all their earthly wealth. It worked.

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[My grandma, as a teenager.]

Later on, he would grow up to have a daughter, my grandma. My memories of her before her mind was overtaken by Alzheimer’s Disease are vague. In fact, aside from the stories my dad and his siblings told, the most I learned about her was at her funeral. I was moved by the stories of everyone who loved her–sharing how they had been touched by her kindness and genuinely sweet spirit. She never raised her voice. She always took her time making lunch on Sunday afternoons. She loved her family well.

I love knowing that I get my full cheeks from my grandma. I want to be always kind, like her. I love knowing that my great grandpa and his family were adventurous, courageous people who dared to start a new life in a foreign country. It makes me feel like I am part of something greater; and gives me permission to come out of my small thoughts and small world, and focus on the bigger picture I belong to.

We’re not alone. The lives we live affect people, and they forge a path for future generations to walk down. In our lives, we don’t have to achieve worldly success or fame to make a difference. Simply making good choices every chance we get, and loving the people in our lives well, makes a difference. We are all making history, whether we realize it or not.

The Advantages of Being a Pack Rat

I never thought I’d change my opinion about the spilling piles of paper, magazines, and other random things my mom kept all around the house. They were annoying; they made the house look messy and if anyone tried to throw something out, my mom would get mad.

Mostly, I didn’t understand the appeal of holding on to ephemera. Ephemera is supposed to be transitory; it’s there and then it’s not. Old advertising, museum brochures, movie tickets, scribbled notes, fortune cookie messages. Ephemera: a polite word for junk.

But when your mom passes away, your perspective shifts. Your sense of normal—which included having your mom in your life until you were at least middle aged—is altered. You reevaluate your expectations and priorities.

Several months ago, my dad and I started going through my mom’s stuff, and I found myself confronting these piles again. This time though, the piles weren’t annoying. They were actually kind of comforting, reminding me of what life used to be like before.

Still, I didn’t expect to find what I found. Mixed in with the long-expired coupons, disintegrating cough drops, and balled up Kleenex, I found things I had never seen before.

I had no idea she kept the front page of the newspaper from the day I was born. Brochures on breastfeeding and eating for two. Graduate school papers, response cards from my parents’ wedding, one of her job’s information packets, home movies from her childhood. Poems, drawings, every letter she ever received from her childhood friends, from the age of 12 when she left Michigan, until the last year of her life. Drawings my brother and I made when we were little, some of our toddler clothes, report cards.

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She had saved her memories. It wasn’t a memoir, like my grandfather wrote, but it was a peek into her world. Because she saved things she liked and wanted to remember, I’ve been able to get to know the younger version of my mom, seen her as a person first, and my mom second. I’ve come to understand her more, appreciate her more. Miss her more.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would come in handy.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would have come in handy.

Yet I’m still conflicted by these piles. She didn’t just save things she liked, she saved things she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. To get to the things that really meant something, I had to weed through the things that my mom forgot about. It’s a lot easier to miss the good stuff that way.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born about 20 minutes after she got to the hospital.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born 25 minutes after my mom got to the delivery room.

The piles also mean that I have to make the choices she never did. I get to decide what was important to her and what wasn’t. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on another person, especially when that person is still grieving.

Inevitably, this process has gotten me thinking about my own mementos. Because I don’t want the decisions I didn’t make to speak for me—I want to speak for me.

I’m not nearly as inclined to keep things as my mom was, but I still do have some of my old toys, essays, Kid City magazines, and random tchotchkes. And for now, I want to keep most of those things. They represent the person I used to be and trigger childhood memories.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I know I can pare my stuff down further though. I’m pretty sure no matter how many She-Ra books I have, I won’t forget how awesome she is. I doubt I’ll regret getting rid of the doll I never liked and the random ugly trinkets.

So I’ve been culling down my current collection of memorabilia, and taking a more critical look at the things I choose to keep. Now before I indiscriminately toss or keep something, I take a moment to ask myself what I want to remember. Will I want to look back at old cards? Which projects are worth taking up space? Should I get rid of the 1930s hat that I love but rarely wear? In other words, what is important to me?

I think of it as curating my life. As the expert on all things me, I’m the best person for the job.

Tracing Traits in Your Own Family

Since the theme (and name!) of this blog is Family Resemblance, I thought I’d create a printable that helped people start identifying the similarities in their own families. There’s two family activities and eight questions about things like your family’s ability to whistle. It’s been cute-ified by Lisa White of Moxie Pear.

To get the printable, just go to the sidebar, find the subscribe area, type in your email address and hit subscribe! You’ll only get emails from me when I write a new blog post; I promise no sales stuff, newsletters, or other miscellaneous annoying junk email.

(Just one note: you need to use Adobe Reader to download the printable. If you open it in a browser with a PDF viewer, you WON’T be able to save/print your answers. Go here if you’re not sure how to switch from opening a PDF in a PDF viewer to downloading a PDF via Adobe Reader.)

I’m also going to be featuring bloggers’, friends’, and family’s filled-out versions of the printable every so often. Readers are welcome to submit their answers too.

Today I’m featuring fellow personal historian Alisha Morgan of Paper Clipped Memories. She works with families to create everything from celebration books and family cookbooks to family histories and family tree word art. Her final products are not only fabulous, they’re pretty too!

Alisha is a Southern gal with a wicked sense of humor and quite an interesting family, as you’ll see below.

Alisha Morgan Printable

Family History Roundup

friday favorites

I’m getting on the Roundup bandwagon! Every so often, I’ll round up a collection of interesting links on family history, family resemblance, life stories and storytelling. Well, that and the occasional made-me-happy or left-quite-an-impression kind of link.

Alright, I’m just going to jump right in then!

Story spark idea: Using pictures to take a closer look at the turning points in people’s lives. I never thought of doing this! A great idea, especially if you have photos that really highlight the differences in demeanor (in this case, the person went from a tight-lipped Victorian to a free-spirited actress).

Convicts tell their life stories in this photography series, Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves.

A thought-provoking reflection on the changing nature of personal identity and the future you.

We’re so used to seeing old pictures in black and white, that’s it’s kind of strange (and wonderful!) to see pictures of Imperial Russia from 1910 in gorgeous, vibrant color.

And just because I think it’s great: the skinny on getting sick, losing weight, and then having people “compliment” you on how great you look.

Three Generations of Love Stories

Three GenerationsMy mom had just gotten home from a trip when she heard the phone ring. She’d been in Los Angeles meeting my dad’s family for the first time, and it was my dad on the phone checking in to make sure she got home safe. In addition, he was also wondering if maybe she’d be interested in marrying him.

She was, actually. Even though he was asking her over the phone mere hours after they’d been in each other’s physical presence. Even though she didn’t get a bended-knee proposal and couldn’t excitedly hug him for a little while, she still wanted to marry him.

He’d been thinking about asking her for a little while, but it was his grandmother who gave him that extra push. After my mom left, my dad’s grandmother said, “I like her. You should marry her.”

Now, he could have had that moment of revelation and then waited to ask her in person. But there’s another reason he asked her over the phone. If my mom said no he could just get off the phone afterward.

And those are some reasons to ask a person to marry you over the phone.

Hey, it was better than not asking, my dad pointed out, and he’s quite right about that. After all, I wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t asked.

So it all worked out, but I would never say yes to a proposal like that. Not that I was ever expecting to receive a proposal like that, because who would propose to someone over the phone anyway? Well, besides my dad, of course.

Apparently, ehem, I would.

It wasn’t my fault though! My soon-to-be fiancé, Joey, and I were on the phone talking about his upcoming visit the following week, when all of a sudden he said he wanted to ask me an important question in person. A question he couldn’t ask me over the phone.

We had already talked about the other big things. We had said we loved each other and wanted to live together, so there was really only one important question left. Basically he had just announced he was going to propose to me in a week.

That is absolutely not how a proposal works! You either propose or you don’t propose. You don’t leave people in proposal purgatory.

Armed with the knowledge that a proposal was in my near future, I had two options: wait until I saw him or ask him to marry me over the phone. In other words, I could be laid-back about it and just wait for a romantic proposal in person (it was going to involve rose petals, I later found out), or I could be impatient, get all worked up, and ask him to marry me over the phone.

Less than a minute later, I had a fiancé that I couldn’t hug or kiss for another week.

My mom always said I should learn to be more patient. Come to think of it, she said the same thing to my dad sometimes.

While the similarities might seem obvious, I didn’t make a connection between the proposals for years. I was too busy focusing on the differences.

For instance, my dad was 23 and my mom was 24 when they got engaged. By that point, they had been dating for about a year. In contrast, I was 19 and Joey was 20. And did I mention that we had only known each other for a month?

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Actually, he said yes

Before I explain, I’d like to point out that Joey and I have been married for over a decade now. So no matter how crazy we may seem in the story below, just remember we’re still together today.

Joey and I met through friends the summer before our junior year of college. A group of us were all meeting at one house and carpooling to Venice Beach in a SUV. Joey wasn’t even supposed to go but when an extra row of seats refused to go in, someone remembered Joey’s mom had a Suburban. At first he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it because he was supposed to pick up his dad at the airport, but at the last minute his dad decided to take a later flight.

We talked a lot at the beach and the Thai restaurant we went to afterwards. Over the course of the day, he went from being the short skinny guy with the big Suburban, to the kind of annoying argumentative guy, to the guy with the pretty eyes. (Instead of telling him he had pretty eyes, I chickened out and told him he had long eyelashes.)

I'm in the center and Joey's in the bottom right hand corner.

Picture from the day we met

Back at our starting point, Joey offered to drive me home even though my friend had driven me there and my house was completely out of the way. During the ride, he told me stories about his life, and my perception of him changed again. I thought for sure he was going to try to kiss me when we got to my house (at least, that’s what I was hoping he would do), but he didn’t even ask for my phone number. That really confused me.

We got together as a group a couple more times over the next three weeks. Joey and I usually ended up gravitating toward each other, spending most of the time talking alone. The last time we all hung out was the day before my family’s annual summer trip to Mammoth Mountains. After that, I’d be heading off to the Netherlands to study abroad for a semester, and Joey was going back to school in Florida.

We both admitted we liked each other and agreed to write. At one point, I stopped him mid-sentence to kiss him. He was so thrown off by this that he just smiled into the kiss, not kissing me back. (He was actually probably more thrown off by the fact that he had planned to kiss me at my front door. Sometimes he needs a little time to regroup when his plans change.)

We wrote letters, emails and talked on the phone. We’d talk for hours and hours. He said he loved me, I said I loved him, we got engaged. He flew out to visit me and we spent the weekend in Paris.

Taken in a photo booth in a Paris train station

Taken in a photo booth in a Paris train station

He waited until he was back in Florida to tell his parents we were engaged. By that point, we’d known each other about a month and a half and had been a couple for three weeks.

I waited a few more weeks to tell my parents because then I could at least say Joey and I had been together for two months. Sadly, that extra month didn’t make me sound as mature and responsible as I’d hoped. Needless to say, they didn’t take it very well.

From then on, it was an endless stream of wedding planning and people trying to talk me out of getting married. One of the only people who didn’t object was my grandmother. She said she really couldn’t say anything bad about it because she and Grandpa had gotten married pretty quickly too.

She didn’t give me the details, but the old love letters I found years later filled in the blanks. Turns out they had only been together about three months when they got engaged, and eight months when they married. She was 22 and he was 24.

Too bad I didn’t know all that back when everyone was telling me I was crazy. It might have helped my case. (To be fair to all my naysayers, when I realized that my grandparents had only known each other eight months when they got married, my first thought was, “Wow, isn’t that a little fast?”)

We made it down the aisle despite all the hubbub. We got married on August 5, 2002, exactly a year after we met. (Unfortunately for all our guests, we met on a Sunday, so our wedding was on a Monday night. By that point, I was so immune to everyone’s grumblings that I didn’t care if anyone complained.)

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As of February 2014, we’ve been together 12 years and married 11 years. My grandparents were married 55 years and my parents were married a few months shy of 35 years. I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps in that way too. So far so good.