Mining Family History Treasures

The National Herald

Handwritten records are gradually being digitized in some regions of Greece. (Photo: Courtesy of Gregory Kontos/Greek Ancestry)

What do you know about your great-great grandparents? Sadly, I know nothing of mine. Millennia of our ancestors’ lives and traditions are lost to us because they were never recorded. Like you, I owe my existence to unknown forebears born during the past 20+ centuries. They lived, grew, worked, loved their families, then died.

Forgotten, unidentifiable people, biologically, put me here.

Ancestry website commercials permeate TV; they tout discovering ancestors for us. DNA traces roots but doesn’t tell the whole story. The fascinating PBS series, Finding Your Roots, expertly delves into the past for celebrity subjects. Yet, there is a simple treasure hunt we can start on our own to initiate preserving whatever family history legacies remain in memory, before they’re forgotten.

Fortunately, I had talkative parents. When they left their Greek villages (father in 1907 and mother in 1921), they felt tremendous longing for families, birthplaces – the deeply familiar – all left behind, inaccessible, and so very far away from America. Nostalgia brought their villages and my grandparents ‘to life’ in our Chicago home as lively topics of conversation. Entertained, I paid attention, like listening to my favorite radio program.

Decades later, my husband suggested taping my mother sharing her recollections: memories that inspired easily-shed tears and exuberant laughter. Rich, colorful remembrances from 20th century family members inspired the writing of my husband’s and my own family’s stories. Senior citizens are usually most capable of recalling family heritage. Memories count.

Recently, The National Herald published my piece, Star-Spangled Solo about my first trip to Greece, when I was fifteen: a mere 66 years ago. There’s still more to say about that journey. The citizens of my father’s Arcadian village in 1955, ten years after World War II’s end, were still recovering from the vicious, devastating, Nazi occupation. They did not, yet, have access to convenient utilities and farm machinery. Villagers used ‘scythes’ and performed ‘winnowing’ (words I only knew from school spelling bees) to harvest crucial grains from their wheat fields. Fascinated and enriched by what I learned, I watched them work under the sizzling sun at archaic, back-breaking winnowing, a vital task, annually performed – to have bread to eat. Villagers were still dependent on working the earth, with no automation – to survive. Many of our unknown forebears lived isolated agrarian lives (no distant travel, no technology) which literally did not change for centuries, like the scenes I witnessed in 1955. 

Spoiler alert: Neither Plato nor Aristotle from the Golden Age may show up on your family tree. Tracing lineage back to ancient Greece is still incalculable. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Finding Your Roots could not trace Greek-American celebrity roots of Tina Fey, George Stephanopoulos, and David Sedaris prior to the 19th century Greek Revolution. Most personal, Greek, ancestral records don’t precede that 1821 revolt. Why? Our Greek kinfolk suffered countless, disastrous set-backs during 400 years of forced Turkish occupation. For four centuries, Ottoman Turks discouraged Greek education. 

Even into the 20th century, educating girls was deemed unnecessary by many Greek family patriarchs who believed a wife and mother need not know anything beyond cooking and housekeeping. Many of our male ancestors never attended school; they were needed to work and help eke a living from the family’s undernourished, overworked Greek soil. Capable and bright, but with no time or opportunity for education, they never recorded their children’s birth dates because didn’t know how to read or write. Yet, they continued the cherished oral tradition of passing down a family’s past, which pre-dates Homer. 

If only we could tune-in to the sounds of those precious, bygone narratives – maybe with more surprising twists and turns than ‘Downton Abbey.’  Like us, our forebears were human – imperfect. What would we feel knowing those lost stories? Compassion? Disapproval? Appreciation? Most certainly we’d feel pride in their faith, resilience, perseverance, and courage. We’re here because they survived. 

If this interests you, interviewing family survivors is a beginning. Grandparents, Mom, Dad, your siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins may know valuable info. Old photos prompt rusty memories after they doggedly proclaim, “I don’t remember anything.” What changes, good and bad, have they witnessed in their lifetimes? Replies regarding birthplaces, parents, siblings, other relatives, religion, WWII, 9/11, schooling, health, even family scandals – maybe more fascinating that you expect. Who is that first person in your family to immigrate to the United States? With available computers and iPhone cameras, we can easily record our subjects, and initiate a treasured legacy that inspires continuation by others. You will be a part of it.

It’s been said a history book is lost, forever, when a senior citizen dies. The seniors you know will appreciate and savor the hours you spend with them. Let’s save the treasures in our family’s ‘history books.’ 

Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections; Cosmos Publishing 2005 and American Kid, Nazi Occupied Greece through a Child’s Eyes; Year of the Book, 2016.