Passing On Your Family History to Your Grandkids

Of all the gifts that grandparents can give their grandchildren, few are grander than a sense of where they fit in to the history of their family.

Why do I say that? Well, who is better positioned than grandparents to be the family griots, a term for those great African storytellers, whose job it is to be a repository of tribal history, traditions, and culture and pass them on to future generations?

But this family storytelling idea is more than just a wonderful bonding custom; it has a proven basis in scientific fact.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia have found that children who know a lot about their families have higher self-esteem than those who only know a little. In addition, those children aware of family history are more likely to feel in control of their own lives.

Passing on Your Family History Personally

Now, while my wife and I both knew the importance of family history when we got married 43 years ago, we were really just too busy getting through the day to come up with an organized plan to pass that information on to our only son or his cousins.

But, of course, by the time our first grandchild arrived 8 years ago, we were in a much different situation.

Not surprisingly, Judy, being an artist and manager of an art gallery, chose a visual approach to letting our granddaughter, and then our grandson, be introduced to their personal past.

She framed dozens and dozens of pictures of relatives and family events and then created a portrait gallery on the long stairwell wall leading to our 3rd floor. When our grandchildren visited, she would carry them one at a time up the stairs, pausing to point out who some of these people were, what they did, and then answering any questions from Audrey and Owen.

As a writer and a teacher, I chose a different, more sedentary method. When our son was old enough to understand the alphabet, I would write letters on his back when I put him to bed after story time.

He would have to guess the letters. Later, I broadened that idea to have him try to tactilely feel out simple words I would write.

With my grandchildren, I expanded that technique to use the back-written words to introduce a family background story that I would then tell them, often tailoring that tale to something they had asked about or encountered during the day.

Of course, these are just 2 ideas. There are almost as many ways to tell family stories to grandkids as there are grandparents to tell them. Here are some other suggestions:

Visual Ways of Family Storytelling

  • Make a family photo album and share it with your grandkids.
  • If you are technologically savvy, create a family history picture compendium online. Perhaps you can even get some computer tips from your grandchildren for this one. Nothing says younger ones can’t teach older ones.
  • Fill in a family calendar with important dates for your family and discuss it periodically (weekly, monthly, seasonally, etc.)
  • If your grandchildren are like ours, they love memory matching card games. Create a set of matching cards using pictures of family members and/or events and play it with your grandchildren. You can assign bonus points if they recount facts about the pictures on the cards.
  • If you have easy access to a number of family burial sites, make tombstone rubbings and use them to prompt directed family discussions. This is a good way to introduce the ideas of death and dying when your grandchildren are ready for such a talk.

Written Ways of Sharing Family History

  • Make a Me – My Parents – My Grandparents Chart. If you’re not familiar with this fun learning exercise, here is an example of how it works. Create a 4-column chart. At the horizontal top of columns 2, 3, and 4 places the designations Me, Parents, Grandparents. Working vertically down, assign subjects for column 1 such as – at age 6 my favorite food, TV program, book, activity, sport, etc. The possibilities are endless. Use the answers to discuss personal history and cultural changes.
  • If you have access to old handwritten letters or diaries, transcribe some of the entries and read them with your grandchildren. This may get them interested in writing their own letters, diaries, or journals.
  • Compose a short Focused Memoir Chapter. Pick one event from your life and write it up as if it was going to be part of your overall autobiography or memoir and share it. You can write about something as routine as spending a spring day in the park or as historic as watching the first man walk on the moon.
  • Create an abbreviated written version of your Family’s Food Heritage. Seek out favorite recipes from family members and write them down. Add a short bio piece with each recipe. If you want a more hands on approach, make some of the simple recipes with your grandchildren.
  • Find online newspaper clips of historic events in your lifetime. Write down your feelings and reactions to those events. Create a scrapbook or online blog to share all of this with your grandkids.

Extending Learning About Your Family History

If your grandchildren express a real interest in family history, here are 2 involved collaborative projects you can enjoy together:

  • Plan and undertake a Family History Field Trip. For example, if Judy and I were to take such a trip with our grandchildren, we would go back to the small New Jersey community of Bridgeton, where we were born and lived for 59 years. You could even record the entire adventure with a video camera or your cell phone and then have your own family documentary episode.
  • Create a Family Museum Exhibit of Important Ancestral Artifacts. For example, if we were going to create The Price Family Ancestral Museum, we would need artifacts from my career as a writer and an educator; Judy’s art years, my Dad’s military, dry cleaning plant operator, and professional gambling years; my Mom’s 50 years as a school teacher; Judy’s Dad’s career in glass manufacturing; and her Mom’s years as a homemaker and retail sales clerk.

History, whether it is that of a small farm family or a massive nation state, is really the personal stories of how people faced the challenges and changes in a specific period of time

Speaking of the challenges of our time, Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City says: “The elderly are the only increasing natural resource in the world”.

So hey there, fellow resources, I think a great way to begin offering our advantages to the world around us is to share what we know about our own family and times with our grandchildren.

I hope you agree.

I also hope to meet you somewhere out there on our intersecting family history trails. We have so much to offer, not only to our own families, but to each other.

Can Being Messy Transform Your Life for the Better?

If you know the nursery rhyme story of Jack Sprat and his wife, then you have an idea of the relationship my wife of 48 years, Judy, and I have. If you’re not familiar with the child’s poem, here is the first stanza:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean.
And so betwixt the two of them,
They licked the platter clean.

As you can see, Jack and his wife are a husband and wife with quite differing, opposite tastes. However, by combining those complementary preferences, they are able to “lick the platter clean” – that is, in other words, experience complete success.

Judy and I are a lot like that. We have generally similar interests. But within those interest categories, we have very differing approaches and penchants. But we have learned to accept and enjoy those differences and have come to believe that they make us a better couple.

But there are exceptions. One of our longest-running disputes involves household (or now apartment) cleanliness.

How Clean is Too Clean?

One of our longest-running disputes involves household (or now apartment) cleanliness.

Judy is tidy. I am untidy. Judy is well-ordered. I am messy. Judy is a neatnik. I am a scruffie. Judy straightens up several times a day. I would clean once every week or so. You get the picture.

Of course, Judy believes her way is best. I counter that even if I did agree, I am constitutionally incapable of achieving her impossible standard of neatness so why should I try.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

That’s why I was excited to discover the latest book by noted economist, author, and Oxford University professor Tim Harford titled Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

I was sure Harford’s book could provide ammunition the next time our tidiness issue arose. I mean who could be more expert and believable than a professor at one of the world’s most prestigious universities?

In his introduction, Harford promises to celebrate the messiness in our lives and show why it is important, why so many resist and why we should embrace it.

Is an Inclination for Tidiness Innate?

Harford first establishes that indeed there is a human inclination for tidiness. Order can help in many areas of life such as finding keys quickly if we always keep them in a particular location.

However, mess isn’t the problem that many make it out to be. For example, a messy desk isn’t as chaotic as it first seems. Harford says that on such desks, the useful stuff eventually works its way to the top of the seemingly disordered stacks.

He explains that basically there are two types of workers: there are filers and there are pilers. Both can be effective. Of course, both can be ineffective, too. Problems arise when people don’t realize that their way isn’t working and refuse to change or are forced to adopt an alien system.

On Making Lists

Harford spends a fair amount of time in the book discussing the relative merits of making lists.

Now, both Judy and I make lists. She makes few lists, keeps them short, and usually accomplishes all her proposed tasks quickly. I, on the other hand, make many lists, most of them long. They are long because I keep adding tasks from previous lists that I never accomplished.

Judy describes my inveterate list-making this way: “You know, if you would stop making lists and just do things, then things would get done.” Of course, I feel a moral obligation to disregard such specious logic. I mean what self-respecting, procrastinating scruffie could ever agree to such an outlandish approach?

So, what does Harford have to say about list making?

In brief, just as he indicates on the controversy about clean/messy desks, there is no one-answer-fits-all definitive statement. For some, lists can be discouraging and counter-productive, often causing them to quit involved tasks. Others do best with multiple lists or a detailed daily plan, while still others perform optimally with only a broader, less-structured idea of what to do.

In his other chapters, Harford continues to present evidence for the life-changing magic of sometimes cluttering up. He explains why rigid targets can wreak havoc, how unpredictable leaders get ahead of their more organized counterparts and why we should abandon our predilections for orderliness when flexibility and improvisation matter more.

So How Did This Mess Turn Out?

Armed with all my new information, I couldn’t wait to discuss my new proofs that life is messy and sometimes you need to embrace that condition with my wife.

Judy listened patiently. She even nodded her head a time or two.

“So, what do you think?” I asked as soon as I finished my presentation.

“I think you should go over there and clean up that mess you made,” Judy said.

It appears that I’m going to need to compile more evidence that messiness can be okay.

And I plan to do that.

But first, it looks like I need to clean up a mess that I find a sign of genius, but Judy believes is just another of my untidy jumble piles. And I guess I better do that right now if I want our marriage to extend to year 49.

My Dad, a World War, a Memorial, and Me

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC

Yesterday was the 69th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. I wasn’t alive for the original VE Day, but my Father, Alvin Owen Price, was. My dad, like millions of men of his generation, was a soldier in World War II. He served in the European theater.

And, like most of his contemporaries, he didn’t talk much about his war experiences. Over the years, I did learn some things. Never a fan of imposed authority, my dad spent much of his time rising in the Army ranks, only to be busted back down. He joked that he knew more about peeling potatoes on KP than firing his weapon on a battlefield. He was also convinced that the helmet the Army required him to wear made him go bald.

Actually, my dad didn’t need to use his weapon much. He was assigned to guard German prisoners-of-war. Every so often, some of the prisoners were flown back to the United States for further questioning. My dad would accompany them. They would fly into an airport near Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was on one of these trips to New Jersey that my story sort of begins.

One of the soldiers in his unit, Joe Falls, was a native of South Jersey. He told my dad that there was a city named Bridgeton about an hour away from Fort Dix that was known for its parties. My dad, never one to miss a chance to party, said that sounded good. So he and Falls obtained a weekend pass and traveled to Bridgeton.

Arriving in town, my dad and his friend headed to the dance hall. This is how my dad described what happened next. They walked in. My dad saw a woman pouring punch. He turned to Joe Falls and said, “See that woman. That is the woman I am going to marry.”

That woman was Mary Louise Ivins. She taught school and lived with her parents on a farm about 3 miles from Bridgeton.

Over the next couple of years, Alvin courted Louise. On May 9, 1945, the war in Europe ended. In 1946, my father was discharged from Fort Dix. Shortly thereafter, he married Mary Louise Ivins. In 1952, I was born. In 1972, my father died. Three years ago, after retiring, my wife and I left South Jersey and moved to Crystal City, just 3 Metro stops from DC.

And all of that brings us to yesterday, the 69th anniversary of the day the war my dad fought in ended.

One of the great things about living in the DC area is there is so much history here. So I decided to go to the World War II Memorial to pay tribute to all the men and women, but especially my father, who had fought for freedom.

World War II Memorial on the National Mall in DC

It wasn’t my first visit. I’m sure it won’t be my last. But it was my first visit on VE Day. I could have gone in the morning when there was a special ceremony honoring World War II veterans. But I wanted a more private, personal experience.

The chairs were still set up from the morning’s ceremony, but they were empty now. Those vacant chairs served as a stark reminder that some day in the not-too-distant future there won’t be any World War II veterans to fill them. When I was growing up, it seemed that every man I met had fought in that war. They had escaped death on the battlefield, but no amount of courage can keep you from death forever. Today, about 555 World War II veterans die every day. At that rate, you can see that it won’t be long until they will all be gone.

For those of you who have never visited the World War II Memorial, if you put yourself in the right frame of mind, it can become hallowed ground.

The monument contains vertical markers of all the states and US territories that sent men and women to serve. I went first to the Texas marker. That was where my father was born, the son of Walter Lee and Zonie Mae Price. My dad’s parents were farmers, but the driving winds of the 1930s blew their small farm and their Texas dreams away. So, like the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, they loaded up their truck and headed west, eventually settling in Shelton, Washington. It was there that my dad enlisted. 

I walked to the other side of the memorial to the Jersey marker. As I walked, I thought about the travels my dad made. From Texas to Washington state to Europe to New Jersey. I also thought about war – the cause for much of that movement. I never fought in a war. My son Michael never fought in a war. We both hope that neither of his children, Audrey or Owen, have to fight in a war. But my dad wasn’t that fortunate. He did fight in a war. Unlike so many others, he survived. Surrounded by reminders of death, I thought about life. To be more specific, I thought about the what ifs that come with life. What if my dad hadn’t survived the war? What if he hadn’t been assigned to guard German prisoners and come to New Jersey? What if Joe Falls hadn’t brought him to Bridgeton that night? What if Mary Louise Ivins had decided not to attend that dance?

But, of course, none of that mattered.  For all those things did happen. Lost in reverie, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I saw an older man in a veterans’ cap. “Could you give something to help homeless veterans?” he asked. I looked in a my wallet. I had $9. I handed him a $5 bill. As sacrifices go, it wasn’t much, certainly nothing compared to all of those made from 1941 to 1945. My dad would have given all $9. He was that way. His generation was that way. That is why they deserve the label the Greatest Generation.  Somehow, I believe they were made of sterner stuff.

It’s hard to follow heroes. But heroes show us how to live in tough times. Eventually they die, but their deeds live on. When he was little, I told Michael about the grandfather he never met.  Both he and I will tell Audrey and Owen about their great-grandfather. I know they will both be interested, but Owen’s interest might be a little stronger since this is where he gets his first name.

And since they are now 6-and-a-half and 5, the next time they come to DC, I will take them to the World War II Memorial and tell them about all the heroes of that time. For, no matter what your age, you can never have too many heroes. And it’s the least I can do for a generation that gave so much.

A Father’s Day Tale of Fathers, and Sons, and Sports Fandom

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC

Sports loyalties, like so many of our character traits, are often a combination like environment and heredity. You know, like nature and nurture. Or, to be more accurate, geography and family.

Where you were born has a lot to do with who you root for. For example, if you were born in Ohio, there is a good chance you will be a Cleveland Indians fan, no matter how you feel about the treatment of America’s Indians. That’s unless your Dad or another favorite relative has always been a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan. Then there’s a good chance you might take the O’s over the Indians. Of course, in cities with 2 teams like New York (Yanks/Mets) or Chicago (Cubs/White Sox) the fandom choice is more murky.

I was born in Philadelphia. For 59-and-one-half-years I lived in South Jersey, except for 4 years when I went to college at Villanova University, located just a few train stops from downtown Philly. And, for all of those years – no surprise here – I was a Phillies fan. My father was from Texas and had been raised in Washington state, neither of which at the time had a baseball team. So, when he arrived in South Jersey after World War II, he became a Phillies fan, too.

I have a whole host of memories of watching games on our black-and-white TV with my Dad, or listening by to the radio, or, most importantly of all, sitting with him in the bleachers at the Old Connie Mack Stadium where the game really came alive. 

I’ll share just 2. My favorite non-Phil (and my Dad’s, too) was St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial. I remember my Dad fighting his way through a crowd to get me Musial’s autograph. He got his hat knocked off, received a cut on his bald head, but emerged with my prize. 

Then there was Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, 1964. Every Sunday, my Dad would take my Mother and me out somewhere in South Jersey for a family late lunch. It was tradition. But on that particular Sunday, our dining tradition bumped up against an even stronger tradition, one that involved a bat and ball, not a knife and a fork. As always, we were listening to the ballgame on the way to the restaurant when it became apparent that this particular game could be a piece of baseball history. Jim Bunning, the Phils pitcher, was hurling that rarity of rarities, a perfect game. My Dad turned the car around and rushed us home so we could see the last few innings. It was a good move. For, on this day, Bunning, who later became a Congressman and U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was perfect. He pitched a game with no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors.

I tell all of this as background for last night. Last year, after we retired, my wife and I left South Jersey and moved to Crystal City, Virginia, a community that is even closer to Washington, D. C. and its hometown baseball team the Washington Nationals than Villanova was to Philly. And, for the 1st time this season, we were going to see the Nats, who were playing the Phils. The fate of the 2 teams had completely reversed this year. The Nats, proverbial also-rans, were in 1st place. There was an excitement about their young team and its season. The Phils, an Eastern Division power for years, were in last place, 14 games behind the Nationals.
In fact, just hours before the game, the Phils had made it clear that they had abandoned their chances for this year by trading 2 of their starting outfielders, one to the Dodgers and one to the Giants, for younger prospects. I joked on Facebook that I hoped I would recognize the team by game time.

Now, I figured I had learned my sports lesson in loyalty from the musical West Side Story, “When You’re a Jet You’re a Jet All the Way …” But I wondered as we approached the field for the game’s 7 p.m. start – would my love of my new city D.C. have any impact on my long-standing feelings for my Phils?

Well, the Phils made quick work of my doubts. Even though the Nationals were using their best pitcher, the Phils jumped to a 2-0 lead in the 2nd inning by way of a home run from a young fill-in 3rd baseman. The Phils continued to expand that lead throughout the rest of the game. The final score was 8-0 and, in the parlance of old-time sports writers, it wasn’t really that close. The Phils’ pitcher Cliff Lee, who had won only 1 game prior to last night, looked like the all-star he had been. There was even a 2-run inside the park home run off the bat of long-time Phils shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

I left the game as I had entered it – still a Phils fan. Of course, that’s easy when your team is winning. The Phils have 2 more games with the Nats. Maybe, just to be sure on that fan thing, you should check back on Friday. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I can’t wait to see how fandom turns out for my 2 grandchildren, Audrey, who is 4-and-a-half, and Owen, who is 3. Their mother, an avid sports fan, is a Massachusetts girl and that means all things Boston. For her, it is Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins. Like me, their father is Philly with a capital PH. That’s Phillies, Eagles (or Iggles if you are a true aficionado of the team and its legendary Boo-Birds fans), 76ers, and Flyers. When it comes to college and basketball, the family rift is even worse. Shannon is die-hard Duke. If you could bleed blue, she would. Michael is a huge ABD (Anybody But Duke). So far, as a family, they have lived in Reno, Nevada and Knoxville, Tennessee, neither of which have pro teams. (Although both Audrey and Owen did wear a lot of orange during their Knoxville years) Just last month, the family moved to Atlanta for a few years. Can you say Braves, Falcons, and Hawks?