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Who Are You?

April 6, 2014

Part 1 of a multi-part series

Self Help ShelvesI suspect (from the size of the ‘self help’ section in my local bookstore) that one of the questions most often asked by people seeking enlightenment or (at the very least) some sense of personal identity and direction is ‘Who am I?’

It’s easy enough to say for example (NOTE: this is entirely fabricated): “I’m a middle-aged wo/man, third of four children born to second generation German-Canadian parents. I’m married to a high school teacher and we have with three kids between the ages of 10 and 16. I work full time as a bank manager, and I volunteer at the local food bank two weekends a month. I enjoy jazz music, red wine, and going on long walks in the woods.” Done – right? Well – no, not really. This is the kind of superficial overview you might use to introduce yourself to a new acquaintance, but it really isn’t who you are.

Who Are YouWho you are goes much, much deeper and is far more complex. It’s the result not only of your familial circumstances, education and career choices, culture and upbringing, values and belief systems, but of your heritage. You can’t truly understand who you are unless you know who your parents were, and who their parents were, and who their parents were (and so on). Delving into your family background and creating  your own personal history ‘road map’ can be quite enlightening (and sometimes a little disconcerting, depending on your genealogy and how deep you’re willing to ‘dig’ to find information and answers to perplexing questions).

Family TreeSome families are very open and proud of their varied family histories – they have albums full of photos and dozens of shared stories about Aunt Amelia’s bestselling book on how to grow rutabagas, Great Grandpa Horatio’s daring-do during World War II, and Uncle Eugene’s unfortunate incarceration for drug possession. Other families share only the ‘best of’ memories through ‘happy time’ tales and photographs. And some treat family history with a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude (those are the hardest to explore because so much has gotten lost over time or has been deliberately concealed – often for reasons no one can even remember any more).

Whatever your family’s approach, you can learn a lot about who you are (and where / who you come from) by doing a little personal research (and a lot of introspective reflection on what you learn). And while a membership for (or .ca) can give you fascinating insights into your family tree (and suck a lot of time – but time well spent, in my opinion), I’m going to suggest you start a little closer to home – by asking (if you can) who your parents are (or were).

Mom and Me, 1954

Mom and Me, 1954

Most of us ‘think’ we know who our parents are/were.  But, actually, what we (most of us, anyway) know is simply who they are/were AS PARENTS.  By the time we first ‘meet’ our parents, they’ve already lived as much as one-third of their lives. They’ve been babies, children, teenagers, young adults. They’ve been happy, sad, proud, dejected, courageous, cowardly, jubilant, disappointed, loved, rejected, joyful, discouraged. They’ve tried and failed, loved and lost, fallen down and gotten back up again. They might have grown up rich and spoiled, or impoverished and lacking the basic necessities of life, or somewhere in between. They attended grade school and high school, perhaps college or university. In all likelihood, they excelled in some courses, did poorly in others, dropped one or two they couldn’t manage. Over the years they had dozens of friends; some stayed close, others drifted away, one or more likely became lovers.

Where were your parents in 1970?They had part time jobs, full time jobs, hobbies, interests. They studied at the library, went to parties and dances, probably drank too much on occasion and (dependent on the era) experimented with an illicit substance or two. Based on their mood and the circumstances they found themselves in, they would have been polite, belligerent, well-mannered, rude, respectful, argumentative, quiet, loud-mouthed.  It’s likely they didn’t always agree with their parents, their teachers, or others ‘in charge’. At one time or another they probably rebelled, resisted, fought back, went their own way. Eventually they met, got married, had you (and it would have been several years before you were even aware that they had a ‘life’ or ‘purpose’ other than taking care of your every whim).

How much of that early time in their lives do you know about? How much can you find out? If your parents are still alive, I strongly encourage you to seek out this information. You might be surprised to find out that the ‘younger version’ of one or more of your parents share a surprising number of traits and long-held imaginings with you. You’re probably more alike than you think! So much of who you are is tied up in who they (really) are. How can you possibly know yourself if you don’t know your parents?

Mom, circa 1938

Mom, circa 1938

Dad, circa 1938

Dad, circa 1938

It wasn’t until my parents died and I started going through the albums Mom had put together on their individual ‘histories’ that I realized how very little I knew about who they were before they were ‘my parents’. I had a number of oft-told stories and some old black and white photographs (and, miraculously, some ‘love letters’ Dad wrote to Mom before they were married), but few true insights into their individual young lives, their hopes and dreams, and what ultimately drew them together (and kept them together for 67 years).  I know more now about my genealogy (on both sides of the family, thanks to and innumerable hours of bleary-eyed research), but there will always be a couple of huge gaps in my personal history because the details died with my parents. I wish now that I’d asked more questions when they were alive, dug deeper into their personal histories (with their help, of course), and solved those ‘mysteries’ that no one ever talked about (and, perhaps, found out why).

How much do you know about our parents before the ‘defining moment’ in their lives when you were born? How much of who you are is tied up with who they were before (and even after) they were your parents? Don’t you think it’s time you found out? I do. Don’t wait until you’re on … the other side of 55.


  1. April 7, 2014 6:48 pm

    I love this post. Genealogy and family history is a big interest of mine…I just recently wrote a post trying to encourage everyone to share their family histories so their children and grandchildren know their families. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • April 7, 2014 6:57 pm

      I just read and commented on your post. I think this interest in family history comes to us as we get older and start wondering a little bit more about where we come from. I do wish I’d asked a whole lot more questions while my parents were still alive to answer them.

  2. April 6, 2014 3:32 pm

    I love the Ancestry website. I’ve found out so much about our family on there, helped partly by the fact that my mother remembered such a lot about her parents and grandparents. I just hope that someone in the family will be interested enough in their ancestry to keep all the material that I’ve collected. I’d hate to think that it was all going to be put out with the garbage when I’m gone.

    • April 6, 2014 3:55 pm

      I was amazed by how much I could find with Ancestry. I’m going to redo Mom and Dad’s albums and include the ‘back story’ as much as I can. Hopefully my boys will find it as fascinating as I have (and I’m going to do my own ‘narrative’ for them as well). I wish I’d done this all much, much sooner!

  3. April 6, 2014 3:13 pm

    Amazingly, I know a lot. We were a big family. With lots of eyes watching and many tongues talking, I learned a lot listening. The stories make up much of my family category on the blog. btw Just yesterday as I prepare for the move I found a taped interview our daughter made with her papa, my husband’s father. You bet I am not losing that again. It’s going in a very special place.

    • April 6, 2014 3:58 pm

      You are so lucky to have the stories; unfortunately, there was a lot in my family that was never discussed and I just didn’t think to ask the questions I should have asked. My oldest son did a project on his grandfather (my Dad) when he was in Grade 5 and a few things I didn’t know were shared, and I have a couple of stories that got passed along at one time or another, but there are gaps I know will never be filled in. I’m redoing the albums and writing my family history (including my own past) as a narrative with pictures; hopefully the boys will keep it all safe and add to it.

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