Ancestor Interviews

Every family has stories. Every fall, with a nod to Halloween and Day of the Dead, we go out and learn some of them. I ask my students to go home and talk to one of their relatives — preferably some one old, maybe someone they don’t see all the time, but even a parent works — and ask that person to tell them a story.  Then the students bring those stories into class, where they have a chance to both tell them and write them down.

Otto Mears — an ancestor of mine. Photo credit: Wolf Creek Ski.

This year, I asked them to learn a story about how their family ended up in Washington. We got stories about orphans and runaways and war brides. There were relatives who had come by flying in early trans-oceanic passenger planes and modern jet planes, by crossing the Isthmus of Panama pre-canal, by riding in jam-packed cars over dirt roads across the Rockies, and by sailing on the Mayflower. There were wars and tragedies. There was talent and fame. There was love and disappointment. There were mysteries.

I asked the students to draw a family tree connecting them to the ancestor they were writing about. They could put more information on it if they knew more, or it could just be a sort of family stick showing them, their mother, and their grandmother whose story they told.

Last year, I asked them to talk to their oldest living relative and ask that person to tell them a story about their oldest relative. There are so many other possible prompts: wars, work, love stories, mischief, childhood, land — so many more. Whatever the prompt, the project seems to give the children a sense of pride in their family and respect for their relatives’ struggles. Learning family stories gives their own stories a context and a larger meaning, and makes history and geography personal. It builds intergenerational ties. It’s also just fun, especially when older relatives tell crazy stories about their younger selves.  Who knows, maybe your grandmother smoked and ate a bear — but you’ll never know unless you get her to tell the story.

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