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Leaving A Legacy

Donna Potter Phillips discusses the importance of sharing information.

Picture this sad scenario, if you will. Grandma or Grandpa have just died. They were the only ones in the family interested in the history of the family. They spent many hours, dollars, and miles collecting information, documents and photos pertaining to the family. Miscellaneous research notes and hundreds of photocopies were happily mixed in with the family charts, certificates and photos. To Grandma and Grandpa, compiling the family history was a work in progress. They assumed they had plenty of time to sort out the real family history — the facts and photos — from the piles of research notes. Grandma and Grandpa had spent a lifetime collecting; they never took the time to compile the collected information into a genuine family history. They did not expect to die.

The author’s 77-year-old mother, June Gurney Potter, with great-grandsons Justin and Trevor Wood, looking at a family scrapbook. They sit under a framed 48-star US flag that flew over the barbershop of their Wood grandfather in the late 1920s in Indiana.
How We Lose Our Heritage
“What is all this stuff?” asks Eldest Son when he comes to clean out the house after the funerals. “What a mess! I knew Mom and Dad were doing genealogy, but I sure didn’t realize it meant collecting mountains of papers!”

“Well, I don’t have time to sort through this mess!” says Eldest Daughter. “Let’s just get rid of it all. After all, I have to get back to Jim and the kids.”

And so the history of a family is lost. It happened because Grandma and Grandpa, the ones collecting all the family information, never took the time to sort and compile a family history, and they never took the time to really share what they were finding with their family. The big mistake was one made repeatedly over several years. It was a mistake of omission.

Genealogy was an academic hobby for Grandma and Grandpa. They loved visiting libraries, archives, courthouses and cemeteries. They loved sleuthing out the answers and filling the blank spaces on the family charts. But they seldom included the family in their hobby; no picnics in cemeteries for this family. The fire of enjoyment and thrill in their family history was never kindled in Eldest Son and Eldest Daughter. Grandchildren’s imaginations were never ignited with photos or stories. Family history was just something Grandma and Grandpa did.

The equally sad second scene of this drama might take place years later when Eldest Granddaughter or Eldest Grandson might become interested in learning more about the family history. They ask their parents. The parents vaguely remember hauling Grandma and Grandpa’s stuff to the dump. They remember moving those mountains of papers, and seeing some official-looking papers with seals and funny old photos sprinkled in the piles of papers that they were boxing up. They may or may not realize at this point that at that moment precious parts of their family history were lost forever.

This tragedy did not have to happen! It does not have to happen in your family! A similar fate might await your collection of genealogical research materials, but a disaster can be averted by doing a few simple things.

The first and best way to safeguard your family history is to share it, especially to share it with your family, and especially with the younger members of the family. Children will be interested in the family history if given the opportunity.
The best method for sharing family history with your family is to make the items and information you collect available to your family. Do not keep all the heirlooms packed away in trunks, and don’t file all the photos and 19th-century certificates away in boxes or binders. Let your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews see how interested you are in these things, and how much you value these things, and that interest will surely rub off onto them.

Here is a story to illustrate my point. My grandmother Clara’s doll was a porcelain-headed Kestner doll, made in Germany in the 1890s. The doll was given to Clara in 1901 when she was five years old. As her next oldest sister had just died from typhoid fever, the doll became Clara’s new best friend. When Clara married, her own daughters enjoyed the doll to the point of destruction. Sometime in the 1930s, the doll went into a box in pieces. The two daughters, Ruth and June, raised families and nobody knew or cared about the doll in the box. After Clara’s funeral in 1973, my mother, June, found the box of doll parts and memories came flooding back. She brought the box home to me, and told me what she remembered of the doll’s history. She was sorry that my brothers and I had never seen the doll before, and never heard about her from Grandma Clara herself. I had the doll restored, and now she proudly sits in a child’s rocker in my living room for all the family to see when they visit. Whenever family is around, I make sure that they know the story of Clara’s doll, and let them know how important the doll is to our family history.

I want my children and grandchildren to realize what a treasure we have in Clara’s doll, what a piece of personal history. Packed away out of sight, the children would not have had the opportunity to grow up with her, would not have developed any attachment to her. And not feeling any attachment to her, they might have had little compulsion to safeguard and cherish her when I’m gone. Clara’s doll might have ended up in an antique shop!

If you have family heirloom items, I urge you to share them with your family whenever and however you can. Set the old dolls and toys out. Try the potato ricer. Use the crocheted tablecloth. Make the old scrapbook a coffee table book. Perhaps you could set aside shelves in a special bookcase to display family history items, things like that old music box, ceramic milk pitcher, salt and pepper collection, shaving mug, military emblem or a child’s handprint in plaster-of-paris sprayed gold.

By constantly seeing these things, your children and grandchildren will know their value to the family, and will know that they are heirlooms to be safeguarded and appreciated. Hopefully, your family will come to even cherish these items as you do. Your family will never come to love and appreciate the things they never see and learn about. It is up to you to make sure that yesterday’s history is part of today’s history.

A parallel thing you can do to help your family understand and appreciate their history, and the artifacts relating to that history, is to keep scrapbooks. Whenever you go visiting, to babysit grandchildren or for a week-long summer vacation, take along a scrapbook to share with your family. Show and tell them the family history.

The best way to compile a good family scrapbook is to include everything in three-ring binders. They are inexpensive and very available. Here’s what to do. Purchase a couple of three-ring binders and a box or two of acid-free top loading vinyl sheet protectors. Put the vinyl holders in the binder, and into them will go all the family “stuff” that you want to keep, such as grandchildren’s letters, newspaper clippings, love notes and photographs. Put a family pedigree chart in the front and use this as a road map to help your family see all the relationships. Sprinkle in family group charts to help keep the family straight.

Arrange the items in the scrapbooks by families. Group all the things about your grandparents, for instance, behind one tab — letters, certificates, census copies, military papers and photos. Include everything that might otherwise be put in a file folder, box, or trunk and lost from sight and then memory. Do the same for your parents, including Dad’s school report cards and Mom’s DAR membership certificate. Start a section for yourself, your birth and marriage certificate. Perhaps even your Chili Cookoff Award! Having all these things in one place will make for some very enjoyable rainy afternoon sessions with a grandchild.

Teach your family that these things pertain to their history, too, and are not just a collection reflecting Grandma and Grandpa’s hobby. Look at Father’s high school graduation picture — how different from yours! That 1912 wedding picture of your grandparents — you attend that same church! Are the report cards reflecting grades like yours? Looking at Grandpa’s World War I papers bring more meaning to that moldering old hat found in the trunk.

Keep the family scrapbooks up to date. Keep adding clippings, photos and new drawings from the children. Make these scrapbooks vital to every member of the family. A family’s history should be something the family lives with day to day, and not something visited or looked upon occasionally like going to a museum. Things packed away out of sight will soon be out of mind. Thrift stores, flea markets, antique malls and garage sales do a brisk business in unloved family heirlooms. And dumps are full of them.

If you are the Official Family Collector and Historian, then do your duty properly. Arrange and organize the information you’ve found into good order, and do it now. You may not have a tomorrow. Stop collecting and organize what you already know about the family into a proper fashion to pass on to your descendants. And start aggressively sharing the data and items with your family; teach your family their family history. It is up to you to leave a legacy.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.


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