Holidays a good time to learn family history

December 18, 1991|By Carol Lacey | Carol Lacey,Knight-Ridder

Holidays are the time when "branches" and "twigs" from the family tree are most likely to entwine around your living room or dining table.

And it's a good bet that once Grandma Geraldine and Uncle Otto sit down with a mug of steaming cider and a plate of cookies, they'll start reminiscing. They'll tell the old stories about how they walked 10 miles to school -- uphill both ways quite likely. Or they'll remember funny little pranks they used to play.

Chances are, this is when many youngsters excuse themselves, hurrying off to play Nintendo, call friends or even catch up on overdue homework.

But hang around a bit, Ira Wolfman urges the younger generation, because you may develop a new appreciation for your family roots.

Wolfman is so excited with the discoveries he made about his own genealogy that he recently published a guide, "Do People Grow on Family Trees?" (Workman, $9.95). In this guide for kids and other beginners, he applies his curiosity and determination as Ira Wolfman, F.I. (family investigator), and his professional expertise as Ira Wolfman, editor-in-chief of Sesame Street magazine.

Four years ago, he started his own family history search by attending an afternoon workshop. "People were showing up with 25-foot family trees," he recalls.

But all he knew was that his four grandparents came through Russia and Poland. He didn't know the name of even one great-grandparent, although their pictures had hung on his father's wall, watching him with great seriousness, ever since he could remember.

He quickly caught the genealogy fever. He obtained a copy of his grandparents' marriage certificate through the board of health and learned their names: Arron and Slava Shapiro. After more research, he not only knows their names but has their marriage license from the 1840s.

Wolfman considers genealogy "a big puzzle" that should intrigue both kids and adults. As they puzzle over what family members were like or where they came from, they have a chance to have interesting conversations with grandparents and other relatives.

Kids don't need to start out with genealogy workshops. They can simply sit down and ask, "Tell me, what was it like to live in your house?"

Besides giving children a chance to play reporter, detective and interviewer, it puts "kids in control," says Wolfman.

Instead of listening to the thousandth repetition of a well-worn story, kids can ask about what interests them.

By saying, "I want to hear about this," the young person also creates a connection. And that's important in this country, where extended families are far-flung and seldom get together.

Gathering family history also gives kids a sense of self-esteem, a feeling that "they are part of a family with a long and important history," says Wolfman.

It's important also for adopted kids to develop a history of family in their adopted home, with their adopted mother and father, says Wolfman.

If kids run out of questions on their own, he suggests they ask older relatives about the impact on the family of major events in history -- wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement. Questions about family pictures also can help prompt memories.

For the more serious genealogist, Wolfman's book contains a "working genealogist's kit," including a dictionary of American last names, pedigree chart, family group sheet, correspondence log, where to write for birth and death records, a guide to the National Archives' regional system and a Freedom of Information-Privacy Act request form.

For additional ways to learn more about your family tree, check these resources:

* "Family Ties, Family Wisdom -- How to Gather the Stories of a Lifetime and Share Them With Your Family" by Robert Akert (William Morrow).

* "The Family Storytelling Handbook: How to Use Stories, Anecdotes, Rhymes, Handkerchiefs, Paper and Other Objects to Enrich Your Family Traditions" by Anne Pellowski (Macmillan).

* "A Celebration of American Family Folklore: Tales and Traditions From the Smithsonian Collection," edited by Steven J. Zeitlin, Amy J. Kotkin and Holly Cutting-Baker (Pantheon Books).

* "The Great Ancestor Hunt" by Lila Perl (Clarion).

* "Roots for Kids: A Geneaology Guide for Young People" by Susan Provost Beller (Betterway Publications).

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