Family stories sometimes leave us rolling our eyes or steaming in anger.
Famed footballer Lou Holtz once said that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.
The same is true when it comes to your life story and the life stories of your ancestors.
Think about your family. Most of us immediately jump to our nuclear families — your parents and siblings.
But the skeletons that have been hidden for generations will start to whisper the stories of our ancestors, eventually peeking their heads out of the door and parading around for all to see.
At that point, you may find that the negative experiences are the first to come to mind when you start to write the stories of past family members.
With a little digging, though, you may find that the skeletons come bearing gifts: valuable gems and treasures from our history that will create a richer, more meaningful future for us and the generations to follow.
Pick Which Family History Wisdom to Adopt
Lisa Louise Cooke, genealogist and author, understands all too well the research and digging that goes into finding a family history. By the time she was 18, her parents were each on their third marriages.
As she looked back, though, she found that beyond her parents were her family’s unsung heroes, like the great-grandmothers with 12 or 13 children who successfully traveled across the country, made a home, and became an instrumental part of life for the family members who followed.
She went digging through her family history.
When she found relatives who had so many outstanding traits to offer, she pulled from their lives.
From her great-grandmothers, for example, Cooke learned how they dealt with their kids, how they thought of others, how they held people accountable, and how they set examples.
Each of these things has helped Cooke make decisions for her own life as a mother and grandmother.
“You can say, ‘I really like these features over here. I know how that made me feel and I want to make sure that I’m doing that,’” she said. “I think we can learn so much from the people who came before.”
Where to Find Your Crazy Family Heritage
Get Started: Gather Research
I enjoyed Cooke’s advice and expertise, and I agree with her first step. Just start. Jump in with both feet and research your family history. You have a few different options to begin.
Go to Google: Thousands of pieces of content are being published on the Internet every day — including historical documents and archives that might have information on your family members.
You may find scanned copies of an old government census, photos of centuries-old birth certificates, and even blogs written by long-lost cousins and family members.
Start talking: Interview your family members. Start with the oldest — you never know how much time you have left to access the library of information they have about their own ancestors.
Learn as much as you can from them and document everything. You might consider videotaping, or even getting younger generations involved, letting them be reporters and “interview” the older generation.
Gather hard evidence: Pull out old family Bibles, journals, and other treasured pieces that might contain old records and accounts of circumstances and situations.
You may be surprised at what you find; some people discover that their family members spoke different languages or had unique beliefs.
When you come across a story that fascinates you or catches your attention, dig deeper.
Start to ask the hard questions — you know, the ones no one really wants to answer.
Think like an investigative reporter.
You’re trying to get information that people don’t necessarily want to share.
Who else might provide those facts? Think about family friends, neighbors, or co-workers who might have been around at the time. Check out a community historical society, or visit a local genealogy center that gives visitors access to old records and print pieces.
You’ll find that this will be more challenging with the hard and uncomfortable moments in your family’s history — the skeletons.
People typically go out of their way to hide the skeletons as they come up.
The one thing I’ve learned in my years of researching and learning is that I’m surprised much less than I was early on by the actions and decisions of my ancestors.
What does surprise me, though, is how much I’ve been able to learn and apply in my own life.
Find the Traits You Value the Most
It’s hard to find who you want to be when you don’t have role models demonstrating those behaviors on a regular basis.
You won’t know how to live them yourself if you don’t even know what they are.
As you look at your family’s past, look at the peace offering the skeletons might be bringing you from the closet.
For example, if a family member had an affair, look at the strength, resiliency, and choices made by the other partner.
See what you can take and apply from the situation, even if it’s something you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a learning opportunity.
“We get snarled by what has happened in the past,” Cooke said. “Writing your life story helps you process that. To investigate, to actually bring out into the light, shake it out, get the tree, find out who your parents were before you were around, learn more about their parents…so many things are going to come to light.”
Today, Cooke values her Christian faith, but she didn’t grow up like that. Her religion left her feeling like the black sheep of the family, but her research showed that she has many ancestors who were strong in their own faith.
Find Healing in the Hurt
If you have ever felt like the odd man out in your own family — even in your own skin — learning your family history is the first step toward healing.
Writer and editor Shayna Watson grew up thinking that she was part Native American. After extensive research she decided to order a DNA test that traced her ancestry, and found out that her bloodline didn’t come from the Pequot tribe as she was told.
She found out she was 73 percent African, and 25 percent European.
She could have taken that information and focused on the negative aspects, that someone in her line was lying and that she was faced with a future and identity she’d never known.
Instead, as Cooke did, she focused on the positive.
“I spent years holding onto an excuse to reduce the physical representation of blackness in which I didn’t see beauty,” she wrote. “I didn’t hear dark skin, wide noses and thick, kinky hair being complimented…but what is being complimented is from Africa, is from a historical mixture unique to black Americans — and being “just black” is my new response.”
“I now know that my grandmother, and others before her, shrank themselves a lot for me to finally arrive here.”
Now that the skeletons are out of the closet, you have two decisions.
You can either let those skeletons dance all over you or you can dance with the skeletons, learning from them, picking out the ones you want to celebrate and invite to your future party, and growing in empathy, strength, and character in the meantime.
You’ll learn to appreciate that everyone tries to do the best with what they’ve got.
You’ll learn to become more open-minded as you discover the reasons someone made a decision that you wouldn’t have made.
You’ll see that there is often more to the story than what you’ve been told in your oral history, and that those details can be the ones that open your eyes to the truth.
You’ll see role models who overcame great trials and tribulations to get them past challenges.
You’ll see in yourself those same traits, wisdom and characteristics, and will learn how to channel them to create a new and better future for you, your children, and grandchildren.
Pick up your Pencil
At this point, it’s crucial that you start putting your stories down in writing.
Start with yourself.
Write down everything you can remember about each member family. Pour yourself and all of your memories, good and bad, into these pieces of writing. Then move onto the rest of your family members. Tell their stories. Review them and analyze what you’ve learned.
You’ll start to see common threads emerge — this is where the benefits come in.
You’ll find out that, for example, your fiery red hair and matching temper may have been unique to your family of soft-spoken brunettes, but solidly resembles your great-grandfather and his siblings.
This gives you the ability to find commonalities while pulling out the traits you appreciate and want to build on in your own life.
Learning your family history gives you the ability and power to choose new role models, new ways of thinking, and a clearer picture of where you came from.
Share the Stories
Telling your story through memoir doesn’t mean you have to write a 1,000-page published hardcover.
It does mean that you share your story.
One of the most effective tools for telling your family heritage is through free blogs. Not only will you start to see more clearly the holes that you should address and research further, but you’ll also be putting your keywords, dates, and names out there so distant family members doing their own research will stumble on your work.
You’ll connect with them, but you’ll also see that telling your life story and learning from the situations of the past will help you project — and learn from — your life story.