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Posts Tagged ‘descendants’

Those of us who are passionate about family history spend a lot of our time looking backwards.  Our entire focus is on learning about our family’s history, seeing how far back we can go and how many details we can uncover.

But how often do we reverse this, and look forward instead?  When was the last time that you stopped to think about your descendants?  I’m not talking about your kids or even your grandchildren.  I’m thinking instead about the descendants that we’ll never meet, like great-grandchildren and their kids.

What would these descendants want to know about you?  What aspects of your daily life, which you might find tedious, might they find fascinating?  What significant pieces of your life are simply not captured by your “document trail”–the birth certificates, marriage records, etc. that will define you 100 years from now?

It’s much more fun to look back than to look forward.  I love staring into the eyes of ancestors in an old photo and wondering what their lives were like.  And the life of a lumberjack in Minnesota in 1894 is infinitely more interesting to me than the details of a typical white collar person’s life in 2008.

But it’s a mistake to only look backwards.  For starters, our lives are a lot more interesting than we think.  We’re so busy just living from day to day that we forget that our lives really are adventures.  That epic backpacking trip through Europe, or the story of how we quit our day job to start a new business—those are wonderful stories that need to be told!

Our lives are also filled with minutiae that our descendants will likely find fascinating.  As common and straightforward as our lives seem today, future generations will be very curious to learn about how we lived our lives—because their lives are likely to be so different.

Just imagine what you’d give for the chance to ask a dozen questions of one of your ancestors.  The simplest questions would yield great insights and bring these ancestors to life.  Questions like: Why did you marry your spouse?  What are you most proud of?  Who were your heroes?

The answer to any one of these questions would be something that we’d likely treasure, and it would bring an ancestor to life in a way that no census page ever will.

Our own answers to these questions would be no less a treasure for future generations.  Every little detail about our lives that we can leave a record of, and every artifact that we manage to preserve and pass down, will likely be equally treasured by some future family historian as they look back through time and try to make sense of our life.

So here’s a little laundry list of some of the things that you might think about leaving behind for future generations:

  • Answers to simple questions like:  What do you believe in?  What are you passionate about?
  • Diary/journal entries
  • A list of all the places that you’ve lived, with dates
  • A list of the cars that you’ve owned/driven
  • A list of all the people that have made an impact on your life    -
  • A short summary of your best friends
  • A list of all the jobs that you’ve ever held
  • A description of how you spend your leisure time
  • A list of some of your favorite things/places/people
  • A list of your biggest pet peeves
  • Personal letters
  • Birthday and holiday cards
  • Funeral and wedding programs
  • Ticket stubs
  • A treasured book
  • A favorite tool
  • Photos—lots of photos
  • Home videos
  • A recording of your voice
  • A complete list of all the traveling that you’ve done
  • A description of a typical day at your job
  • A dozen secrets that you wouldn’t share with any living relatives
  • Your biggest disappointment or heartbreak
  • Your greatest regret
  • A list of the five most significant events in your life
  • A list of your greatest talents
  • A description of your most embarassing moment
  • A description of some piece of technology and how you use it in your life
  • A description of your morning ritual(s)
  • A description of your evening ritual(s)

I could go on all day.  And likely you could, too.  The point is that there are many things that you could so easily leave behind for your descendants.  It takes such little effort to create just a few of these artifacts, and they would likely become great treasures to some future family historian.  So what are you waiting for?

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Here’s the genealogical equivalent to the age-old “boxers or briefs” question—when it comes to family history, does your passion lie with finding ancestors, or finding descendants?  Both pursuits have their own unique rewards and particular challenges.

Many people get hooked on family history as they try to flesh out a chart of their direct ancestors.  As kids, we fill in grandparents, ask about great-grandparents and quickly fill in the first few levels of the basic ancestry charts.  It’s a huge thrill to completely fill in that one-page, five-generation chart.

For people who are driven by the search for ancestors, the ultimate goal is often to identify and record as many direct ancestors as possible and to go back as far as possible.  We’ll spend months banging on a particular brick wall until we eventually uncover a new ancestor, or add specific dates and places where we previously only had a name.

Or we might be driven more by the search for descendants.  We pick one of our ancestral families, often starting with our own surname, and we do our best to fill in a complete tree of descendants, starting as far back as possible.

For descendants-focused family historians, the ultimate goal is to create a tree that contains absolutely every descendant of a particular family.  We get energized by reconnecting with long-lost cousins and by fleshing out branches of the family that we didn’t know anything about.

Me, I’m more of a descendants-guy than an ancestors-guy.  This is probably because I come from a large family (my Sexton line) that has always been close and because we are such good storytellers.  I also love the idea of putting an ancestor in some sort of historical context, by learning as much as possible about their immediate family.

Both quests—ancestors or descendants—are never-ending.  We can always keep pushing the search for ancestors, as we go back farther and farther.  And, building a list of descendants, there are always new babies being born and cousins growing up and getting married.

Whichever aspect we tend to focus on, there is a lot of benefit in switching occasionally between ancestors-focused and descendants-focused.  Learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and family can often help us push our records even further back.  And we can often learn more about a tree of descendants by finding out more about the ancestors on both sides of the family.

In reality, most of us are a mixture of both types of family historian.  Rare is the completely clean .GED file that goes in one direction only.  We often start out by exploring direct ancestors, but eventually get interested in the families that these ancestors came from.  So we start “going sideways”, learning as much as we can about the entire family.

But when it comes down to it, if I had to answer the ancestors-or-descendants question directly, I’d have to say—descendants.  How about you?

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