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.