Genealogy, or the study of your family history, is a powerful thing in which to engage. Any homesteader understands the importance of roots. Great gardeners don’t really grow plants, they grow dirt and roots and the plants take care of themselves. You are a collection of showy foliage and flashy flowers and fruit – you’re awesome. But to know who you really are, you have to dig around and examine you’re roots; the quality of the plant is determined below the surface. And just as growing your first tomato sends you down a slippery garden slide into the realm of massive year round gardens and drowning in produce every harvest season, genealogy can be extremely addictive.
You may start digging and not like everything you find but what’s important is that you’re fully aware of what’s there. If there’s a problem with the plant, you’re going to most likely find your solution in the dirt. Your family may not be the Waltons but its yours and, for better or worse, they helped form the person you are today. And from you come the offshoots that are your children. Families are like great big circles with our few human stories just retelling themselves over and over again. Are we improving on each season? Are we learning from the stories that came before us? Do we even know them?
Homesteading and Genealogy
When I think of the modern version of homesteading, I think of the desire I have to pass on a certain way of life to my children. Its a way of living that was lost to my American culture somewhere between The Great Depression and today. My grandparents can remember it, they speak of it to me when prompted, but my mother has no experience with it and neither do I. I’ve had to carve out my lifestyle from my modern experience; chipping away the worldliness until I strike on something more real and solid. Something more simple.
A homesteading sensibility seems to lead to a less trash lifestyle at some point. We don’t all start out there; many of us are still struggling to mesh our do-it-yourself beliefs with our convenience foods culture. Somehow, though, along the way we start focusing on what is truly important in our lives (usually things like peace, family, safety, love) and allowing all the dross to just kind of fall out of our way. This is what I want my legacy to be. I want to be remembered as the mother who loved her children enough to make them work. As the wife who loved her husband enough to manage our home with my own two hands. As a woman, I want to be known as the one who always strove to be true and to be of use.
After searching out my ancestors, I discovered that this desire is not original to me; the women of my family have long carried those very same wishes in their corseted bosoms over as many centuries as I’ve been able to watch flit back on my pedigree chart. To get to the activities for kids, just skip on through these next few parts. To share a story or two with me, come meet my grandma.
Meet My Grandma
I want to introduce you to some of the women of my family – all the little girls who went on to become amazing women and great grandmas. Well, not all of them, but here are a few.
Don’t be boxed in
Mary, up my maternal grandmother’s line, lived in a time and society that valued women who knew their place. She was married to a minister. She was quite lovely. And fiery. There are several stories of her willingness to hold her line and not take any smack off of anyone, including her loving husband. I offer just this one: Of an evening the minister returned home unexpectedly with a large group of men who, he informed Mary, would be dining with them. He knew it was last minute and so allowed that the meal would only be a light supper.
Mary smiled sweetly (a definite sign of trouble) and set about placing their finest china and best silver on the dining room table. After some time, she called the gentlemen into the room, wished them a good meal and retired upstairs. Upon entering, the men were astonished to discover one lit candle on every plate. Their light meal had been served.
I think about Mary a lot, actually, especially when I’m feeling misunderstood or taken for granted or just plain tired. This homesteading life is exhausting, to be perfectly frank. But when I think about her, I imagine Mary telling me to square my shoulders and lift my head. She teaches me to never be happy in a box; she speaks to me across centuries telling me that my vision is worthy and worth fighting for. Stiff upper lip, is what I’ve learned from her.
A sense of humor
A sense of humor is vital on the homestead. Just this past week, my neighbor’s cows busted down their fence and escaped – calf and all. The fact that we live in a regular, suburban neighborhood made it necessary to get those cows rounded up before they got hit by a car or ate someone’s prized roses. As my son and I raced down the street to offer our help, I just couldn’t help laughing to myself. What a silly, totally homestead-y mess to be in – of course the cows escaped the pasture! Of course it took about six adults and some very excited kids to get them rounded up! If you can’t laugh at your cows, whom can you laugh at?
My grandma, Elaine, just oozes funny. Everything is entertaining to her and every moment is an opportunity to have fun. Its in her nature. Once, when she was still young enough to be running down halls, my grandpa who was nestled in bed, heard her call from down the hall, “Here I come!” He then heard her galloping towards the rooms, after which she flew across his line of sight in a mighty, messy leap. What she meant to do was jump on the bed. Since they’d moved the bed earlier that day, it was no longer accessible from the doorway and what she ended up doing was collapsing in a heap on the floor – all elbows and nightgown around her ears. My grandpa nearly wet himself laughing before he could manage to ask if she was ok. In a bit of huff, she went off back down the hall towards the kitchen, exiting the room with as much dignity as she could muster. It might have been effective at calming my grandpa’s hysterics except that she forgot the kitchen door was closed and ran right into it. His peals of laughter doubled in the bedroom, needless to say.
And she is always doing stuff like that – some of it deliberate and some of it just a result of her playful, hilarious nature.
A love of things that grow
My other grandma, Phyllis, is my father’s mother. My parents divorced when I was young but Grandma Gardiner always took time to invite us over for roast and custard. She would share her books with us (my children know her today as “The Grandma Who Lives in California and Sends Books”) and, my personal favorite, her garden. She lived in the house her mother built with her very own hands (sadly gone now – bulldozed to make way for a parking lot). That backyard was a magical place for me. Grandma grew all kinds of flowers and herbs; each cranny was filled with something. She’s the one who taught me how to put a plant in a clay pot. She taught me how to stake delphiniums. She taught me how to lay a garden path. She was forever sharing starts and seedlings with me and treating me like a garden equal, even though I was just a kid.
My maiden name is the one I got from her son – Gardiner. So, so close to gardener. I treasure that part of my name, even though my husband’s family name has replaced it in my signature (something I also treasure). Her mother has been an influence on me, as well, although I never knew her in this life. Grandma Gardiner would tell me stories of Grace Amanda Rose and I’d want to be like her – so fearless, so strong and occasionally irascible. Life is give and take. And then there was my dear great, great grandma Hyatt – she didn’t let anything stand in her way. Ever.
These stories came to me in my youth through the efforts of my family to search out our genealogy. When I came to watershed moments in my life, or just every day problems that needed a solution, these grandmas were there for me – in the flesh or in spirit, it hardly mattered. I place such a high personal value on knowing my family’s roots that I can’t imagine my life, or my homesteading lifestyle, without their influence.
Activities for Kids
Thank you for allowing me to share so many stories – did I talk your ear off? That happens with genealogy! So, if these women had such a profound influence on my life, I think they can do the same for my children. They lead very quiet lives, for the most part, but in those every days were so many extraordinary little things. Everyone has a story to tell, even the dead.
To get children involved in genealogy, first think about your motives. Do you want them to learn to work hard on the homestead? Do you want them to see the “why” of your lifestyle when their friends all live so differently? Are you hoping they’ll find inner strength through accessing the real life examples of people who share their DNA? Are you hoping they’ll avoid some of the mistakes they may be genetically predisposed to make? All worthy goals so here are a few ideas of things to do with varying ages of children:
- The most basic is to create a small family tree – four generations starting with themselves should do it. You can use a standard size piece of paper or grab some butcher paper and make a tree the size of your wall. Cut out leaves for each person and have the kids write their family members’ names themselves. Bust out the glue, the glitter, whatever it takes to get them engaged.
- Teach children how to take a good picture – or, at least one that’s in focus. Collect a small photo album, some cool scrap booking stickers and some fancy pens. Gift them this set and let them fill their album with pictures of the people they love. Teach them to label, label, label their pictures! You can also create digital scrapbooks online at sites like Shutterfly. Their lives are wildly interesting – their discoveries, their questions, their games. Every day life is intriguing and your children see things from an entirely different perspective than yours. These youthful collections would make a great gift for a grandma, fyi.
- Each holiday your family celebrates, select one ancestor to research – it doesn’t have to be much if you don’t have a lot of information. When the family gathers to celebrate that holiday, set a place at the table for your chosen ancestor. Share the information you’ve gathered as you enjoy your meal.
- If you live near relatives, have your child interview someone. These interviews don’t have to be technical if you don’t want them to be. Sometimes all your great aunt needs is a question or two to get her rolling. We don’t really think of ourselves or our lives as that interesting but getting the ball rolling is usually all it takes before you’re knee deep in awesome stories. There are apps for installing recorders on your phones these days or they digital recorders. A pencil and piece of paper work fine, too.
- If you have that one family heirloom Christmas ornament that everyone treasures, write down the story of it this year. Laminate it and keep it in your Christmas boxes so that future grandkids can know the story, too. You think you’ll remember but the details fade over time and one day you’ll be pushing up daisies, unable to tell any more stories except those you’ve recorded with your pen. Cheery thought. If its cheer you’re looking for, you may want to check out the Homemade Christmas series that will be running in November. Learn how to start your own homemade Christmas traditions that future generations will enjoy. And tell stories about…so make it good.
- Encourage your children to keep a journal of their own lives. Yes, their kids are going to want to know how much popcorn at the movie cost and what their favorite book was. Keeping a journal is a good habit to get into, especially on the homestead. I’m constantly looking back in mine to find what varieties I planted in the garden and which goat kidded when. I really need a separate homestead journal! Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t think she’d lived a life that was of much interest to anyone but where would the world of American literature, or homesteading literature, be without Little House on the Prairie?!
- If you’re children are online, you can contact far away family members using Skype or something similar to fact find and just to chat. I love for my children to have wholesome, loving mentors outside of my home. I want them to love me, of course, but after awhile they get tired of the sound of my voice (we homeschool, so they hear my voice a lot). If Aunt Christine can teach my oldest how to crochet and tell her to brush her teeth then suddenly those things become the awesomest things to do. My Aunt Christine is pretty awesome, after all.
- Make a list with your child of all the characteristics of your family members that you admire. Pick one to work on and then write a note to that family member conveying your gratitude for being so swell. This activity focuses on the positive that’s there in your family. Families are messy and not all are happy but there’s bound to be someone, somewhere in your family tree that is the one you want to be like.
- If your family prays, make a list of those family members who might need some extra prayers said in their behalf. Children are very naturally self absorbed and praying (or sending positive thoughts out into the universe, if you’re not a formal pray-er) is a great way to teach them by spiritual repetition that there ARE things more important than them. This is an important lesson for anyone to learn but a homestead kid really needs to live it because cows have to be milked, eggs must be gathered and food has to be preserved whether you feel like it or not. Its not all about them; we do all this because of them – so that they can take care of themselves and others, one day.
- If you have a teenager who would like to get involved and perform a wonderful service, together you can learn how to index online at Family Search. Indexing is the process by which names from original records (marriage licenses, censuses, etc) are transcribed onto digital databases so that they are available to people all over the world. This service is done by volunteers and they’re always looking for help. Many school programs have requirements for community service hours and this would
- work beautifully. For more information, just follow the link above.
- There are various crafts and school projects you can do, too – make picture magnets with ancestors photos, take a rubbing of a tombstone, creating unit studies for homeschool on the time periods in which certain ancestors lived. Here’s our current genealogy craft – leaves with each person’s name in my children’s four generation chart written on the face. When we finish these, we’ll laminate them and hang them from our ceiling for our Thanksgiving feast.
Genealogy for our Culture
Our people seem to be somewhat adrift in their own times. We’ve lost something that isn’t that far removed from us but it takes a mountain of work to return ourselves to it – a simpler lifestyle and a healthy cycle of consuming and giving back. A lot of what we’re trying to teach as homesteading parents is more about deliberately living than it is about chores. Going back to the roots, digging our hands into the soil of our family’s history is a way to connect our children to their past and that is an invaluable thing. If you’re going to change the future, you have to understand the past. And draw strength from it.