In many cultures elders are held in high regard and are treated with great dignity and respect. In some ways this deference to older generations was a practical matter. It made sense to assume the most senior members of the family had experienced more of life and likely had developed more wisdom and insights into how to deal with its challenges. They also held a treasure trove of information about the generations that came before them – the living history of their ancestors.
Long before there was AncestryDNA or 23andMe, there was a more personal way of communicating information about family history from one generation to another. For thousands of years we kept the stories of our ancestors alive by telling them over and over from grandparent to grandchild, father to son, mother to daughter.
Through the stories that were told we learned about who these forefathers and foremothers were, their names, how many children they had, where they lived and how and where they died. If we were lucky, we knew their country of origin and maybe the town or city they came from and what they did for a living. If we were really fortunate we knew about their hopes and dreams. Every tiny piece in the patchwork of our ancestry told us a little more about who they were and who we are.
I recently was given a box of old photographs that came from the house my mother and aunt had once shared. The new owner found them in the attic and was kind enough to pass them on to us. Some of the faces I recognized, but many were a mystery to me. Who were these people whose faces and names were once cherished and adored? Now their stories are lost to us.
I was reminded that we don’t need genetic pie charts and genomic profiles to know more about who we are, we just need to ask. We can sit down with our elders and ask them everything they can remember about their parents and their parents’ parents, as far back as they can go. We can sit with a box of old photographs or letters and talk to them about the people and the times passed, hopefully not yet forgotten. One day there won’t be anyone to remember unless we pick up where they leave off and continue the oral history.
This Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, make it a day to remember – to literally remember the ancestors your family shares. You’ll honor them all by remembering and keeping their stories alive.