I remember asking that question about 30 odd years ago, standing in the kitchen of my Grandmother’s little maisonette. Cups of hot tea on the table, rich tea biscuits, black grapes in a bowl and her little Sheltie dog underneath it.
My Nan shuffled a little, looked puzzled for a few seconds, then swiftly changed the subject. Either she genuinely didn’t know; she’d forgotten, or she didn’t want to talk about it.
No matter the reason, I wasn’t going to find out who my great-great-great grandma was that day anyway.
Then a couple of years back, one of the children came home saying that they had to put together a family tree for school.
It was for one of those huge classroom-wall displays and I found myself re-visiting the subject with a renewed interest.
As it turns out, thanks to the internet, creating a family tree is much easier now than when I was 7.
Google, Pinterest and a whole host of online databases allow you to trace your family story with relative ease, back through the generations and half-way across the globe.
So I found a family tree template on Pinterest, sketched it out and got to work.
- - - - -
Our school assignment only called for a very basic family tree.
The children were only asked to go back as far as Grandparents (if they could), but after a few phone calls to relatives and a little online digging, I realised that this was actually captivating stuff.
Going back less than a hundred years, there were people and families I’d never heard of. Extensive families. They were interesting, their lives spanning long forgotten points in history.
You see, a family tree gives you the names of every child born in your family and who came before you. As it takes two to tango, for every child born, you (hopefully) find one or two parent names for your tree. You simply carry on working backwards from there.
This begins to paint a picture as you tread back through the years, offering you a glimpse into different names, times, people and relationships.
It can get really tricky to locate everyone, which is why, in recent years, family tree websites have grown in popularity, making the whole process possible.
Your family tree can be as detailed as the information available allows.
Some people have success tracing their ancestors back hundreds of years. Some can only manage a few decades. Whatever the case, the resulting information can be an eye opener.
So why on earth would you want to build a family tree (other than for a school assignment)?
Wouldn’t it be easier to leave the past in the past?
Here’s 10 reasons that immediately spring to mind:
We all have a very human need to belong
The concept of family trees dates all the way back to the earliest humans, who would draw their lineage on cave walls. It’s clear to see that we’ve always felt a need to belong. It’s important for us to know where we come from. It’s built into our psyche.
Family trees open up a window to the past, helping us to preserve our family history and to see, understand and remember the people came before us. The people who allowed us to be exactly who we are today.
Who wants to be forgotten?
These days, with everyone having a camera or a phone, photos and videos are everywhere and social media accounts ensure our lives are continually documented, even the mundane parts of them.
One hundred years ago, people were definitely easier to erase, but one hundred years from now, will our future family members be able to easily find out who we were?
Probably not unless we do something remarkable, or write it down!
Personally, I’m not too keen on the idea of disappearing completely. I’d quite like to be remembered in some small way and I have a feeling my ancestors probably felt the same way too.
Where on the earth did you come from?
Family trees can help us to discover where our families came from or where they went.
Did your great-great-great grandparents come to England on a boat from Denmark? They might well have done! Did they leave Ireland for America in the aftermath of the potato famine? Many did.
Do you have far flung family members in countries across the globe that you know nothing about? It’s entirely possible.
We’re you around when . . . . .
Did your family members witness any major historical events? Were they part of them?
Did your Grandmother work in a munition factory during the war? Did she celebrate V.E Day? Remember the first man in space? Sing along to the Beetles?
Skip forwards to now. Have you lived through any major events?
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about the death of Princess Diana? Or 9/11? The launch of Facebook or the iphone?
History becomes a lot more interesting when you know that you’re connected with it in some way. Learning about the time in which our relatives lived helps to paint a picture of what their life would have looked like.
What did your relatives do?
Were their jobs and roles determined by where and when they lived? Did their occupation and wage affect future family generations? Does it still affect you now?
The world and the way we work has changed out of all proportion over the last 100 years.
Only 100 years ago, there was a phenomenal gender divide. Women still didn’t have the right to vote; they weren’t allowed to become a lawyer or solicitor, own their own home or work while they were pregnant.
Today, what our family’s occupations were 4-generations ago probably won’t heavily influence or define what we end up doing ourselves, that’s up to us! but it’s still definitely interesting.
How healthy are you really?
Think you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes, but aren’t sure?
You have it, your mother has it, but does it go back any further than that?
What’s the chance of you passing a genetic condition on to your own children?
Our family trees can reveal a huge amount of medical information and yes, it’s probably quite important to know if every female member of your family died before the age of 50 from breast cancer, or if there are any hidden genetic conditions that you know nothing about.
Now where did you learn that?
Have you ever noticed that some members of the same family share personality traits; ways of speaking or acting?
Maybe you’ve quietly giggled to yourself, watching your brother, father and grandfather walking along because they all walk EXACTLY the same way.
Maybe someone has mentioned that you say certain things just like your Mother or that you laugh just like your sister.
Maybe from time to time, your little one uses a turn or phrase or gets a look on their face that immediately reminds you of your Grandmother – who they’ve never met!
This isn’t magic. We pass on personality traits and behaviours in a similar way to physical characteristics. They’re learned and copied over a lifetime, which is exactly why you’ll often see a little bit of Grandma in your small child.
How about that copper coloured hair?
Have you ever wondered whether you’ll still have your hair in your 70’s? If your Grandfather on your Mother’s side suffered from male-pattern-baldness, chances are, so will you.
How about where that dimple in your chin came from?
If you’re lucky, when you research your family, you’ll find at least some photographs that match with the names and dates on your tree.
There is often a striking resemblance between family members, sometimes going back generations.
This isn’t necessarily important or medically significant, but it can be fun to see where your red hair and green eyes might have come from, or to see that every male member of your family going back over 100 years has the same slightly crooked nose.
Building a family tree could be a lot of fun!
Building a family tree can be utterly fascinating.
It’s a window to the past, allowing us to find out lost things about our ancestry and maybe help to answer questions we wish we had asked when we had the chance.
Building a family tree is also something that you can do as a whole family and it’s a great excuse for a get-together!
It can take any form you like, from a simple large sheet of paper, to a scrap book containing names, dates, places, photographs, personal information and more (this would be my preferred option).
Remember More hands make light work!
Working as a team can help speed up the whole process and it can definitely make the task a little less daunting if you divided the research up between you.
You can help each other if you get stuck and maybe find out a lot more than if you were working alone.
Hand your story down.
A family tree, in whatever form is one of the most amazing heirlooms you can pass down to your own family.
It’s a history of everyone and everything that makes your family who they are and it keeps your family history alive for new generations who will (hopefully) be inspired to carry it on.
They can add their own details to it and then one day, pass it on to their own children, so they too, can learn all about people who they’ve never met, but came before.
Maybe you’ll even discover living people you’ve never met!
So there we are. That’s my rather long winded thoughts on building family trees.
If you’d like to know more yourself, you can start right now with what you know and what your immediate family knows.