The Grand Generation
Presenting Your Findings

Making a Grandparent Book
by Margaret Mead

Making grandparent books... is a way for grandparents to pass on to their grandchildren their most cherished possessions-- their memories of their own childhood and youth.
Margaret Mead

We as parents have an important part to play in linking together past and present for children. . .. our children will want to know more intimately about the lives of people who are real and very close to them - how they lived and what they looked like and what they made of the world around them. These, I think, are pictures of the past only we can assemble for our own children.

How can we do this?

One of the best ways, it seems to me, is by making "grandmother and grandfather books"--scrapbooks or albums that will reflect a family's own history as far back as the oldest member can recall. The whole family can join in gathering the material, and the books as they take form will be full of surprises and discoveries for everyone.

There isn't any fixed form for a grandparent book. A bride's book or a baby book can provide a kind of model, but your family will have to invent a form to fit all the kinds of things you decide are part of the family story. A big loose-leaf binder and a large supply of strong paper might be good to start with, for memories, once stirred, tend to rustle on and on; and desk drawers, attic trunks, and boxes in the cellar, once opened, spew forth old daguerreotypes, snapshots, wedding pictures, and photographs of Grandfather as a little boy riding a studio bucking bronco or of Great- grandmother as a little girl in long skirts and button boots.

The first sessions had better take place around the highest table in the house, where everyone can see the evidence assembled--the family Bible with its record of births and deaths, the old marriage lines, the faded passports that meant freedom and a new life for one set of great-grandparents, the old address books that tell where everyone lived a generation ago, the tags still attached to old luggage, the letters from relatives who moved away across the continent.

Grandparents can be asked to think back, to hunt out and to recall everything they know about their grandparents, so that their grandchildren can hear what they heard. Once when we were studying children's ideas about time, a little boy said that for him "long ago" was before his grandfather's grandfather's time. His own grandfather, he explained, told him the stories that his grandfather had told him about his boyhood. So real and lively were these tales that the boy today felt that he could reach out with his own hand and touch that distant time four generations ago.

If your family has a small tape recorder, or can borrow one, you can make a record of just how one story led to another. One of the children, minding it, can see to it that the tape doesn't run out in the middle of the most exciting account of how Great-grandfather saved his children from a prairie fire. And grandparents will remember, perhaps, how it made them laugh, as children, to hear how frightened people were when they saw the first automobiles, how exciting it was to see streets lighted with electric lights, where grandparents saw their first airplane and how marvelous the great airships looked, drifting slowly across a summer sky.

There will be many different kinds of things to put into the books. Old dance programs with tiny pencils attached by silk cords to write in the names of partners, a blue ribbon won as a prize at a county fair and souvenir post cards brought home from world's fairs, the lace collar that adorned Grandmother's first dancing dress, a bit of tattered shawl carefully laid away by a great-aunt, Father's first report cards, which Grandpa secretly kept, and Grandma's precious recipe for plum pudding, written out in her mother's spidery handwriting, lacy valentines, the front page from the "extra" hawked by newsboys on Armistice Day, 1918, a pressed white rose from a wedding bouquet- all these have their stories to tell.

Some books will need a lot of pages for the already well-remembered past, in case some grandmother or great- grandfather kept the family tree well in mind and made records or kept a diary about events in the lives of relatives. In some few families there may be a straight line of eight, or even nine, generations back to the Revolutionary War, in which one ancestor may have fought bravely and another been jailed for being a Tory. All the known names and dates and places can be written in, with pictures--if any survive--to make them real and to give the children a way to trace back the heritage of curly hair or flashing eyes.

For other families, life in America began only yesterday. Grandmother came here as a young girl to find work or to visit relatives, and stayed to marry. "She and Grandfather came over on the same boat, but they only met 10 years later." For these families there are the ties to European, Middle Eastern, or Far Eastern towns--old letters in strange languages, foreign photographs of great- aunts and uncles and cousins who stayed in the Old Country.

There will be gaps, of course, and many families today know little that is personal about their particular ancestors. But grandparents will be able to name the little town in the Carpathians or the tiny island off the coast of Scotland from which, it is said, their parents or grandparents came.

And never mind if the legends about them are romanticized, so that ancestors from Wales had a castle in the family and remote Irish ancestors were kings and queens and a slave ancestor was known to all his descendants as a proud rebel who won his own freedom. Possibly it isn't quite true that blue eyes in the family came from the one Hue-eyed baby who was rescued when the wagon train was attacked by Indians on the Oregon Trail. Somebody's great- great-great-grandfather was saved. He might well have been yours. Family legends are as much a part of our history as the true events out of which they grew and the real people around whom we have built our romances about the past.

For we live in a country in which dreams and hopes have always blended with reality and our lingering knowledge about our own family also blends indistinguishably with the adventurous stories heard about other families that could have been our own. And because our ancestors are so much more a matter of memory than of carefully plotted lines of blood relatives, it is quite easy for us to share grandparents with our friends' children, easy for adopted children to enjoy the past of their adopted parents and equally easy for the children of second marriages to acquire whole new sets of ancestors.

So there should be room in our grandfather and grandmother books for adopted children, foster parents, stepparents, godparents, and all the kinds of extra relatives and ancestors, real and assimilated, who turn up as Grandma and Grandpa talk about the people who were important in their lives.

If there are family movies-- and many families have some stowed away - still photographs can be made from these that show wedding scenes and family reunions and picnics and children, who are now staid, middle-aged adults, turning somersaults on the lawn.

And grumpy uncles and critical aunts will seem more human when Grandma tells stories about their childhood, when they stole corn or watermelons or threw the winter wood down the well or ran away and. thumbed a ride home in an empty hearse. Children will be comforted to know that their fathers and mothers sometimes made poor grades in school or played hooky or cut their own hair with the nail scissors. No one whose mischief and sad experiences and triumphs can be shared by the children can remain just a name or a stranger--of no matter how long ago because children too have been mischievous and sad and triumphant from time to time.

And history itself will come alive. You can make up a chart of memorable historical dates and in between these set down the dates when grandparents - and you, the parents of your children - were born, met, and married. History won't seem so distant and unreal for the child who can say that Grandma was 10 years old when in 1927 Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, that Grandpa was just 15 that day in March, 1934, when all the banks were closed, and that a great-aunt, just out of college, was sitting in a dentist's chair when she saw what looked like snowflakes-in full summer-drifting past the window. Of course, they were really the bits of paper people were tearing up and throwing from windows to welcome V-J Day in 1945.

So history will reach from a grandfather to his grandfather, from a grandmother to her grandmother, and from grandparents to their grandchildren....


From Interview with Santa Claus by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux 0ct 1978
Abridged and reprinted by permission of Walker and Company.
Making a Grandparent Book by Margaret Mead

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