Inner Visions

Old is in. Americans have fallen in love with history. Not textbook history but our history — the history of our family. We want to know where we come from and to whom we belong.

A year ago I wrote in my column about my trip to Ireland which was really more a pilgrimage than a vacation. I wrote about the emotions I felt as I touched the mantle stones in my ancestral Galway home. Readers responded warmly sharing personal stories of reconnecting with their family roots and what that meant for them.

As a society, we are rediscovering our past. I am right there. My mother, now deceased, must be chuckling with the ancestral spirits and getting in an “I told you so” from the beyond. I have come a long way from the young girl who used to roll her eyes, as only an adolescent girl can, at yet another family story.

These days we encourage our elders to tell their stories. Classes in memoir-writing are plentiful and well-attended. My generation has come to understand that memories are the bridge between the past and the future. We are becoming the bridge keepers.

Modern technology via the Internet puts information close at hand and family tree software make genealogy possible for anyone who has access to a computer.

Interest in the past extends beyond our own ancestral heritage to include an appreciation of mementos from past generations. Kitchen implements, clothing, linens, furniture — all find their way into modern homes. For many of us, things that have survived time and use are far more desirable than something from a display room floor. We like living with and using items that have weathered decades of service and developed a character of their own along the way.

Collectors of vintage goods avidly seek out everything from old school lunch pails to farm implements. Most towns, even the smallest ones, boast at least one antique store.

I believe this fascination with the past is more than a fad. Rather it is an attempt to understand ourselves both as individuals and as a society.

It is in knowing our past that we come to understand the present and gain a perspective that guides us in the future, much like a climber who pauses to look from a distance to see the path he has walked. From this vantage point he is better prepared to plot the rest of his journey. Without this, he might lose his way.

We are left with conceptual confusion when we are cut off from our history, in times of rapid social change, a broad diversity of values and a dizzying array of choices. Parents may wish to interest their children in family history, but feel it is impossible to break through video games and TV long enough to impart something of the past. Nevertheless, there are cultures and families that manage to integrate history in the midst of everyday life. Perhaps we can learn from their examples:

1) They tell the family stories. My mother was a story teller. Later, as an adult, these stories provided the leads I needed to follow my lineage from South Carolina and then to Ireland and back to the 11th century.

Stories are often homey anecdotes but impart a value. For example, a family story in my generation comes from my oldest sister. One of her early memories, at around age 5, is of walking through the fields with our grandfather while he talked to her about politics. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have never failed to vote.

2) Parents who instill a love of family history model this by what they do. Vacation this year at a family reunion. Three summers ago my friend took her pubescent daughter in a camper van back to the family seat in the Midwest. At 12, she really wanted to go to Disneyland. Once there, she became friends with elderly aunts and younger cousins and they stay in touch. Theme parks will always be around but family elders, who are our real family treasures, will not be.

3) Treasure items that have been handed down into your keeping. Give them an honored place in your home. Tell their story. They need not have a high monetary value to be a family heirloom.

Maggie Ellis is a certified mental health counselor and a marriage and family therapist. She can be reached at 941-9779, or at

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 21
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates