Looking for something to do while you wait for summer to come?
If so, you might consider a little indoor horticulture. No, not growing houseplants. You've already got those. I'm thinking of something bigger: a tree.
A family tree.
I know. You've already got one. Well, sort of. If you're like me, you've got a notebook crammed full of mismatched pieces of paper with notes about great-uncle Elbert and his 14 kids, faded photocopies of an article someone sent you about the invention your grandfather thought up but was never able to patent, and cryptic scraps that say things like, "Aunt Addie, farm north of Olso, three sisters, 1886."
Along with the notebook, you've got a cardboard box. The box is badly bent from years of sitting in the closet under the phonograph turntable you stopped using 25 years ago, but couldn't bring yourself to throw out. (Hang on to it; they're now collector items.) The box itself is overflowing with several hundred photographs and a smattering of historical documents: naturalization papers, confirmation certificates, maybe even a diploma or two. Some of the papers are as brittle as last year's oak leaves. Some are torn, some water stained, a few stuck together with some mysterious substance that isn't sold in hardware stores. That's OK.
Your project is right on track.
The next step is to find some undisturbed corner of the house. If you have young children, you may want to put your materials back in the closet and wait 10 years, till they become teenagers and only show up at mealtime.
If not, set up a card table or a piece of plywood on sawhorses, and start sorting through the stuff. You'll probably find that most of the photographs don't have a date on the back. This is where your spouse comes in. By pooling your collective memories, you should be able to remember most anything. Get a soft lead pencil, pick up a photo and start.
He: "Oh, yeah. That's Timmy in the back of the '69 Chevy half ton. Man, I wish I'd have held on to that baby."
She: "That's right. I remember his shirt. It was right after he had the chicken pox. He was in first grade."
On the back of the photo you write down the name of the person(s) and the year, put it in a file folder or big envelope marked "Kids" or "Timmy" or whatever, and grab another photo.
He: "Get a load of that hat! The old bag looks like she's balancing a garbage can cover on her head!"
She: "How dare you! That's my Aunt Gussie!"
He: "Yeah, I remember the first time I came to your house. She wouldn't let me in. Told me she wasn't buying anything and if I didn't leave, she'd call the cops."
She: (Laughing) "Our first date. Let's see, that would've been in ..."
You get the idea. Little by little dates are assigned, names remembered, files begun, and the sprawling mass is put in order. As data collects, you start a vital-stats page for each member of the family, including those long gone. Full name, date and place of birth, occupation, marriage (when and to whom), children, date and place of death.
Eventually, you'll want to get this information entered into a standard genealogical chart. Once you start, it's hard to stop. You'll find that it adds a new level of awareness to everybody in your family, as each person begins to see him-or-herself in a larger context. Eventually your kids or grandkids may take up where you left off.
Growing a family tree is a perfect spare-time hobby. Once summer comes, you can set your raw materials aside and wait till next year. Just don't put them back under the turntable.
Copyright 2010 by Craig Nagel
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