The gift of family history

Lambert image
Poppa and Brenda Lambert

When I was a child, I became very interested in family history. At the unusual age of seven, the stories of my forebears were more fascinating than the cartoons on television. I could listen for hours to my maternal grandmother as she told stories of her past.

Fifteen years ago this week I said my last goodbyes to my father, George Richard Lambert (1925–1999). My father grew up in East Boston, Massachusetts, at the height of the Great Depression, and he fought in World War II. When my dad died, my elder daughter Brenda was only four years of age. Now a college freshman, she still fondly remembers the stories I told her about the Lambert grandparents she hardly knew.

As a child, each night Brenda had a bedtime story read to her. But one evening shortly after my dad died, she asked me to “Tell me a story your daddy told you.” I struggled trying to recall one of the familiar bedtime stories Dad had read, but found that I was going to have to improvise. I said, “Why don’t I tell you about a story about your grandfather [her ‘Poppa’] when he was your age.”

So it began, with a story about my dad playing in the street as a young boy and having his foot crushed by an ice truck. Brenda then wanted to know why trucks delivered ice. So history and genealogy were combined. Another night, the story had Poppa going to Fenway Park to see Babe Ruth play against the Red Sox, or Poppa going off to fight in the Second World War. In effect, the tradition of conveying family stories had a different spin on it, and I realized that a fascination with genealogy and family history was being planted in my daughter’s mind early on.

If you have a young child, a grandchild, or nephews and nieces, try sharing stories about their ancestors. The stories told to me nearly four decades ago shaped the course of my own career. I had a better understanding of social studies and American and even world history because I could see where my own ancestors fit into the context of what I was learning in school. It’s a gift I bestowed on my daughters, and in a greater sense telling and retelling these stories allowed the memories of my dad and mom to live on beyond the years they were given.

Share a family story at Thanksgiving, and make it a tradition that carries on throughout the year.

About David Allen Lambert

David Lambert has been on the staff of NEHGS since 1993 and is the organization’s Chief Genealogist. David is an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of genealogy and history. His genealogical expertise includes New England and Atlantic Canadian records of the 17th through 21st century; military records; DNA research; and Native American and African American genealogical research in New England. Lambert has published many articles in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Rhode Island Roots, The Mayflower Descendant, and American Ancestors magazine. He has also published A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries (NEHGS, 2009). David is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass., and a life member of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati. He is also the tribal genealogist for the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians of Massachusetts.

11 thoughts on “The gift of family history

  1. David, thank you for this post.

    When I was about 10, my dad inherited from one of his aunts a box full of documents and photographs belonging to various members of his family back three generations. Among them were primary documents belonging his g grandfather, who had been, among other things, a Methodist missionary in Liberia in 1849. There were also 300+ postcards exchanged by my grandparents in 1910-1911, the year of their engagement. They died before I was born, so this collection was an important part of what I knew about them. Many an evening, Dad would pull out the box and say, “Who’d like a family story?” Out of his fascination with his ancestors, he thoroughly read those documents, and 30 years later turned them into a family history. But on those evenings of my childhood, he’d pick one person, and one event, and weave a fascinating story. I didn’t formally start researching myself until 20 years ago, but the root of my interest was in those stories my father told from the box he’d inherited. My brother, too, remembers those stories, and in the last few years has gotten involved in family history. I don’t think either of us would have without Dad’s stories. When our father realized I was seriously researching, he gave the box to me, and what a resource the contents have been for genealogy!


  2. I, too, listened to family stories from my earliest memories. My grandfather was the main storyteller and his family the main topic. When asked, my other grandparents deflected the questions so my family sense was pretty much one sided. Through the years, I have become the family genealogist and storyteller.

  3. One of my favorite moments of shared family history was after we had finished eating Thanksgiving dinner and were still sitting around the table when my grandmother who was near 90 at the time started talking about being a college student. I had come home from school and had been filling in the family about my experiences and she wanted to share hers. She talked about her father not wanting her to go to college because he felt she would be needed on the farm, but when he saw her committment he did support her. She also fascinated me with the story of her father taking her in the horse drawn wagon to the train station in the middle of a snowstorm so she could catch her train back to Colby College in Maine. This would have been between the years 1912 and 1916.

  4. Thank you so much for validating the event of telling a story that REALLY happened! Even though you may have augmented a story a bit to “flow,” it is important that they be told. I am writing stories of my family for a genealogical writing group here in Colorado. I hope to make a book of them for my “kids,” one not yet 50 (the ideal age for being interested in family history) but the others who might be persuaded to be interested through the stories, and old enough to know that they should be.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I always listened to the stories but never thought to ask questions. I wish I had. I was always even as a child the one that liked to sit with and listen to the adults talk. One story that is not even about my family but still an important part of history that was unexpectedly shared one day was about the holocaust. My mother and her family came from Germany in 1956. They were sponsored by the Baptist Church in Brockton, Massachusetts. I remember until I was 7 and moved we had German neighbors who I think my grandparents knew for many years. My mother was even godmother to their youngest son a little older than me. We called then Uncle Mike and Mrs. Poor (Poor was their Surname). Uncle Mike because I think he told us to call him that. Mrs. Pool was a little less friendly. I found out why years later. Our family kept in touch for many years. Shortly after I got married 26 years ago we were visiting them and sitting around the table having tea and coffee when Mrs. Poor started telling about her family and her experiences in a concentration camp. Even then i was thinking wow how amazing she is talking about this. I think it was because she was telling us how she met her husband and came to America. I don’t remember the details but I will never forget that she told us. I didn’t do genealogy at that time but it wasn’t many years later that I started. We lost touch somewhere along the line.A couple of years ago I determined thanks to my research knowledge that they both have since past away. Even though it was not my family even now I would love to know more about that story.

  6. One of the things I like about Vita Brevis is the way the blog posts draw out stories from other readers. I loved reading all these stories. Even though none of them have to do with my own family, I felt drawn in as if they did. Thanks to all of you for sharing your important recollections. They are a good reminder to pay attention. .

  7. I also was fascinated by the stories my maternal grandmother (1900 – 1984) told about growing up in Chicago in the 1910s and ’20s. Thankful to have her diaries from 1919 to 1922. I was about seven, too, when I first heard these reminiscences.

  8. A well-worn practice in my family!
    I started family history at fifteen or so. Granddad’s cousin, a historian, drew out the line from him to Wm Brewster. No dates or places, wives only when name-change was necessary, and the only notes were to note the Civil and Revolutionary War and Mayflower names. That was in the ’60s when it was all done by book and snailmail. Taught myself how to do it by following what I knew was the next correct person back in line (like having the answer key, but not how to calculate the answer). Once done, and I had a good basic understanding, I wrote to her with questions and thoughts and got back those stories as a reward, culminating in a set of wedding silver from 1846, and the hand-knit stockings worn by the bride.
    Gotta be careful, tho: In grade school, my daughters were required to give a report on the first Thanksgiving, sans mythology, because they were descendants of both Natives and Pilgrims. Took me years to “re-interest” them….so the grandchildren get the “fun” stories as the opportunity arises, and they like them so much I already have a 10-year-old who has agreed to take on the responsibility of caring for the heirlooms and family tree. He’s already started with my Dad’s WWII memorabilia, and he cherishes and “curates” his growing collection.
    So warmed by your story; made me feel warm just reading it. Brenda’s a lucky girl with real treasure no one can take away. Oh! here’s something my Dad did in lieu of the stories (grandparents’ dept.). We played “what’s this for?” every time he ran across an old tool, household gadget or such. That was a lot of fun, and always led to a bit of history about it. The one I recall most at the moment came from someone saying they “didn’t give a tinker’s dam” about something. He got a little lump of clay and demonstrated, explained the whole process and just what a ‘tinker’ was. Fun!

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