Trigger warning: this post contains loss
A few days ago I was reading my husband’s Aunt Kathryn’s journal entries from World War II. My father-in-law was born in Bielefeld, Germany. His oldest sister Kathryn was a teenager during the war. She spent years writing of air raids, alarm sirens, homes turned to rubble, hiding in the basement. Heart-wrenching stories, like this one:
10/6/44: Last Saturday, a major terror raid stormed across our Bielefeld. The destruction to the city is horrendous. I have to cry every time I walk through the devastated streets. Many have lost part or all they owned. Our Edith, our star is gone. . . . Her mother is dead as well. Nothing was found of her. Now Edith’s poor father has lost all–wife, daughter, and home. He volunteered for the front lines. I don’t think he will come back.
Kathryn’s mother, Auguste, became pregnant during the war. I ached for her when I encountered Kathryn’s words of what happened in the middle of eating dinner one evening:
1/18/44: Suddenly Mother became quite ill. She left the room and Dad followed. When I followed them, Mother was sitting in the kitchen and cried. She was in a lot of pain. Dad rode his bicycle to get Dr. Hartog. To make a long story short, Mother had to get to the clinic right away, and lost the baby.
We’ve been talking a lot about our ancestors lately in our home. I have always had a keen interest in genealogical research. A few years ago I even managed to complete a detailed family tree using an obituary search tool that I found online. Although it was bittersweet to learn about so many family members who are unfortunately no longer with us, discovering the roots of our family is very important to me. Also, for the past few Family Home Evenings we have shared stories of brave women from our family lines. I told my kids about my great-grandma Cassie losing her husband when she was eight months pregnant with my grandfather. My husband shared his British grandmother’s conversion to the Church. Sometime we will also tell our kids about Kathryn’s war experiences and their great-grandmother Auguste’s miscarriage.
This recent focus on family history stemmed partially from a discussion at church a few weeks ago introducing the new “Family Tree” story-focused portion of the Family Search website. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported some interesting research: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” How much your children know about their family’s story and roots turned out to be “the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” Those children who know the most about their families tend to be more resilient and better able to cope during stressful situations (See “The Stories That Bind Us,” by Bruce Feiler).
One of the things that struck me most from our discussion at church on this subject was the importance of “telling it like it is.” The most helpful family narratives are those which give the full spectrum of experiences, the ups and downs, the struggles and the triumphs. Telling only rose-colored versions of the past doesn’t provide our children with as effective a narrative from which to build their own lives. Knowing that their parents and ancestors overcame difficulties and heartache gives our children not just people they can relate to on a real, personal level but also encouragement to overcome their own challenges.
So I will tell my children that their great-grandmother Auguste had a painful miscarriage during World War II. I will tell them that she endured that loss along with many other losses (of friends and neighbors) and with her hometown being turned to rubble around her. I will tell them that she survived all of that loss and heartache, saw the end of the war, and soon found the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I will tell them that their great-grandparents left their homeland and came to America (to live among the very people who had turned their hometown to rubble) because of their faith. That is strength. That is forgiveness. That is inspiring.
These are the stories I want my children to know.
What stories do you want your children to know?