Do You Know?

The Do You Know Scale is a set of twenty questions devised by child development scholars to assess how much children have absorbed about their family history. The research suggests that the more children know about how Mom and Dad met, where Grandma grew up, and what jobs Mom and Dad had in high school, the more confident and self-directed those children are.

Doubtless, a certain amount of the self-esteem and confidence exhibited by the higher scoring children results from growing up in families where adults have time to tell legacy stories, and in families that have avoided the bitter divorces, cut offs, and feuds that can obliterate oral history.

But some of the value of family tales lies in the stories themselves. I thought I was the first single mom in the history of the Burrowes family.  Then for a graduate school class, I had to create my family genogram, a diagram of begats and married-tos. As I was jotting down names and symbols, I was reminded that my Dad’s mom had been widowed at age nineteen with a one-year-old baby to support as World War I came to a close. She went on to divorce the philandering party-boy who became my grandfather, so she was a single mom twice over fairly early in life.

Her mother had also become a single mom, when my great-grandfather traveled out west supposedly in search of oil. What great-grandpa did find was a second wife, with whom he joined in bigamous matrimony, while his legal wife and two small daughters in upstate New York thought he’d expired under mysterious circumstances.

On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather lost his wife when she was only 35 years old. His oldest child (my grandma) was all of seventeen at the time, and she married pronto rather than become the unpaid governess to all of her younger siblings. For various reasons, on both sides of my family, the single-parenting gig was in evidence well over a century ago, and at several points since.

I thought I was an outlier, but in fact, I was am just another Burrowes. There is comfort in this knowledge. If my family story was limited to what I could observe about my parents–Mom was a registered nurse who stopped working for a paycheck when the babies came long, Dad was a tenured professor back when tenure was still a thing–then my definition of a Burrowes would be quite limited.

With more of the family canvas colored in, I can see that my kith and kin include drunks, a bigamist, a frontier doctor, a Main Line Philadelphia pastor, and an ambitious transplanted Scot who helped defend Londonderry from Irish Jacobite forces in 1689. (His name was Henry.)

I will make it a point going forward, to be sure my daughter knows these stories. She’s all grown up, but if I don’t pass on the family tales, she and her progeny will be poorer for my oversight.

Does your family pass on stories? Are there any they tell about you? Any that surprised you the way all those single parents surprised me? I’ll add the names of three commenters to my ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.


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15 comments on “Do You Know?

  1. There are PLENTY of stories, including the divorce of the great=grandma (who died the day after my birth)and the crazy ways her kids supported her (an opera costume designer who designed prize winning costumes for her siblings during the Depression).

    My favorite story concerns my Dad and Grandma. Dad was about 6 years old and he and Grandma had gone downtown on the streetcar on a beautiful day in July. As they were coming home on the streetcar, it stopped moving. They were close to a movie theater (the Biograph)and there were lots of police and, they later found out, FBI agents blocking the way. And, they found out later, all of those people were there because DILLINGER was shot in front of the Biograph! Yep, that Toddling Town, Chicago and gangsters! There are other stories but for some reason, that’s one of my favorites.

    Have a good week, Grace!

  2. My family passes on SOME stories, but I’m finding I know virtually nothing about my family’s medical history, which is a problem. Why don’t important things like this get documented?! So there’s no relying on my elders’ poor memories late in life for these important facts.
    Pass those things on to your daughter, too, Grace. Who died of what, and at what age. It’s important to know how many aunts had breast cancer, for example, and was it premenopausal or postmenopausal. And who had heart disease and at what age.

  3. My family is famous for hiding the truth. So much storytelling is involved in order to present a perfect scenario. I found out after my mother’s death, for instance, that she was not married to my father. My sister and I were adopted by her “second” husband so that our birth certificates were redone.

  4. My Italian family did tell some stories of our combined past. Additionally, many years ago I gave my parents a computer and suggested that they write their autobiographies, which they did over a number of years. After they passed, I published their books on Amazon and gifted copies to all the grandkids. So we do have some anecdotes from their childhoods.

    My mother wrote about how my maternal Grandfather came to America from a small town in Italy, leaving Grandma & the children behind. Apparently he returned to Italy yearly, leaving Grandma pregnant each time. My Mom was the last of those babies. When Grandpa had earned enough money, he sent for Grandma and all the kids, but Grandma got sick shortly thereafter and returned to Italy with the 2 youngest children, leaving the older children with Grandpa. She did return to America with the youngest children some years later.

    My Dad wrote the sweet story of how he and my Mom met. As he descended into Alzheimers it became the favorite memory that he was able to hold on to, and we heard it repeatedly.

    The gaping hole in the family history for my children is on my husband’s side of the family. Sadly his Dad died very young, leaving a young wife and infant child behind. I don’t think my mother-in-law ever forgave him for leaving her and virtually never spoke of him or displayed pictures. What little we know about him came from his siblings.

  5. My mother was the youngest of 14 living, born when my grandmother was 56, so I missed a lot of the family history & gossip by coming along as the surprise baby when Mom was in her late 30s & her oldest siblings dead or dying of old age by the time I was old enough to be included in gossip. But what I DID later learn was plenty scandalous.

    One uncle, a school teacher, was lynched in the back hills of eastern Kentucky years before my mom was born. Yes, white folks got lynched, too. No one remembered why, but the moonshiners in the area were the drug runners of the day, so one can only guess.

    An aunt married a German during WWII (highly unpopular move) & got disowned by the family, ending up in California.

    On Dad’s side, I learned my grandfather eloped in his teens, the marriage was annulled by the families, but my step-gran was pregnant & shipped off to California (spot a trend?) where she married a famous at the time screenwriter & had another child with him after my aunt. Meanwhile my grandpa stayed unmarried into his late 40s when he met my granny when she served him a banana split at the ice cream parlor where she worked. Classic opposites attract. She was 18, an immigrant, with barely a 3rd grade education & Catholic. He was a college man old enough to be her dad, Irish Protestant, had poetry published, & an annulment behind him. Both families disapproved to the point the new couple moved from the North to the South, but the apparently successful love match endured until he died, documented in the boxes of postcards & letters he wrote home to my gran & dad as he traveled the south as a salesman.

  6. My mother and father – two of the best people I’ve ever met to this day – didn’t tell all that many stories about their grandparents. My dad did tell us a little about WWII.

    I became interested in genealogy and found that my forebears were an interesting lot. They emigrated from Ireland and England mostly in the 1700’s. A few ended up in Alabama where I live. I try to imagine the courage that it took to leave everything you know and set off to cross the Atlantic for the hope of a better life. I know I don’t have that kind of courage.

    We had our share of scalawags but what has mostly impressed me was how much courage they had, and how they didn’t really look at it that way. They just did what was expected of them. One man went off to fight with the Confederacy during the Civil War and never made it home. My dad and three of my uncles fought in WWII. One uncle was with Romney in Egypt. One uncle was in the Navy. My dad was in the Army in Europe, and help to liberate concentration camps, told us a few stories about it after I asked when I was a teenager. I saw his military records – he survived several major battles.

    My mother’s father – my grandfather – was the son from my great-grandfather’s second marriage. His mother was an American Indian lady who wore a long braid until the day she died. I have a digital picture of her.

    I thank God every day for an uneventful life.

  7. I took an English class in high school where we supposedly learned interview techniques. Then we went to interview old people. For many, it was a free pass to skip! I did, however, interview my grandfather, who proved to be an excellent story teller, especially if grandma wasn’t around.

    My dad and to some extent my mother felt that the past needed to stay past, for you needed to stay focussed on the here and now.

    However, I started doing some more family history when my 3rd grade son was asked about his ancestry. The question was put, where is your family from? To which he logically answered, Canada. No, no, that wasn’t possible. Well, then, how about America? The teacher answered, “You are not aboriginal.” (The assignment was intended to start the conversations you mention. Kids can now pick someone else’s family, if they want. From history, even.)

    So I started looking to determine when, how and why we are here… and he’s actually in CA now. Some of it was easy because the people were still around to talk to. One guy arrived in MA sometime between 1634 and 1638. My maternal grandfather came from Ireland, but an Irishman told me, no, he was a Scot. And, yes. They’d only been in Ireland 400 years by the time Grandpa left.

    Yes, the medical thing should be talked about more. I do think that we should retain the right to determine what we choose to do with that information, however.

  8. Growing up I knew my grandmother had 5 sisters and one brother.. Long after I got out of college I found found out she had 5 other brothers their brothers but was embarrassed that the family was so large

  9. Much to my utter dismay, stories were not passed down in my family. There are things I have learned recently that would be so lovely to have the story of how it happened.
    My ancestors on my Dad’s side were immigrants in approximately the 1870s. I would love to be able to “break” the information barrier that won’t let me get to the “old country.” And, I can’t find when my Mom’s ancestors came to America.
    On my Mom’s side, I discovered an uncle for my Mom that she said she knew nothing about. (This might be true or it might be her memory issues. BUT, I wouldn’t put it past her family to keep the uncle hidden… the uncle did something bad and spent most of his life in jail for it. This info completely and utterly surprised me!)
    I found out after my dad died that he had received the Distinguished Flying Cross. That would have been something I would love to know more about. From what I read, he saved some lives during a tense air fight (and got back to base with bullet holes in his plane.) Not surprising knowing my dad, but utterly worth talking about.

    I TOTALLY agree with everyone who hasn’t gotten medical information passed down!!!!! It is SO important to get those problems out in the open so that the “kids” can be aware and make informed choices! One grandfather died of a massive heart attack when my dad was 17. My other grandfather died of brain cancer. A great-grandmother died at 35. It is important for us to know, but it also puts a whole new spin on parents and family and how they handled life.

    I think, though, that my parents (and older generations) came from a “we don’t talk about that” mindset. I mean, when my aunt had a heart attack, I didn’t find out for 8 or so _months_ and I only found out because my mom casually mentioned it as part of something else.

    Anyway. There’s way more, but to make a long story slightly less long, YES, I so wish I had stories. It’s too late for me and I wish all families would talk about their people!!!!

    PS – SO looking forward to the next Lady Violet!! 😀

  10. Sadly, I am one of those who know very few stories and have even discovered some of them were full of misinformation. This has left me unsure which parts of the stories were accurate. I know I am not alone in this because I have a friend who came to discover some outrageous lies in her oral history.

  11. My grandma’s sisters must have interpreted the need for secrecy to be voided by her death because I was regaled with stories at her funeral. My father did DNA testing and was very surprised by the results. I happened to be out to brunch with my dad and one of my brothers when he showed us his results, he was confused that they contradicted the official family lore and I had to illuminate him. Apparently the men at my grandma’s funeral had heard none of the stories I had. My grandpa had been the product of incest and thankfully my dad had already suspected that, so at least I didn’t have to surprise him with that news. He wasn’t aware his mother was full Dine and Apache or that his father was Jewish (north African) so when he looked at the DNA results he just thought they were inaccurate. My grandpa came from Mexico as a young child during the revolution and when he crossed the border names were changed to avoid anti-semitism. Even the program at my grandma’s funeral nearly 40 years after my grandpa’s death emphatically asserted his church involvement, that’s how important it was to make sure he was not remembered as Jewish. It sure stuck out in the family list so it was sort of a protesting too much thing at that point.

  12. Curious to know what a “lady’s pint” is, when you have time to define sayings.
    My comment on families: My mother’s ancestors were from all over the US, with a large dose of tidewater Virginia–yes, cousins and brothers on both sides during the civil war. But tracking the generations back to that point was difficult. Eventually she found someone descended from the second family (and wife) of a many-greats-maternal grandfather. His first family, one of whom was in my mother’s line, was so annoyed when he remarried on her death (within weeks, the story goes) to a 16 year old, that they cut him out of the family bible and history. Families!

  13. My parents told me stories of their life all the time but, of course, stories from earlier generations were few. Except for my paternal grandmother who was a “loose woman”. She left her family when she was 20 and was shot and killed at the age of 25 by her lover who found her in bed with another man.
    When I did a DNA test, I found out that she had conceived my father with a man not her husband because his grandson turned up related to me big time. The most curious aspect is that my mother worked for him and he helped my father get a job with the government. No one knew that he was my natural grandfather. Vaughn and Inez (his wife at the time) doted on me and she even made a dress for me (I was just a toddler). I was able, by census records, to place Vaughn in the same location as Ruby (grandmother) at the time my Dad was conceived.
    Truth is stranger than fiction!