Tapping into your past, to what is bred in your bones, can be a labyrinthine journey. "Nowadays we're all a blend of ethnic backgrounds," says Kathleen Galvin. Americans can have multiple family ancestries: European, African, Hispanic, Asian, Filipino, Maori, you name it—often generations removed. Several Web sites provide access to lineage information (familysearch.org is the online version of the Family History Library, the largest genealogy library in the world). Beware of companies that promise you an authentic history and a "family crest" for a fee. Many of these enterprises are fraudulent.
A more immediate way to connect to your past is directly through family members. Sit down with your grandmother or grandfather, suggests Remen. Bring a notepad. A family's past resides in its stories, not its begettings, which is all that genealogy can tell you. Send out an email to far-flung uncles and cousins and ask if they'll share anecdotes, photos, or even a memento. Holding your great-grandmother's faded daguerreotype can be stirring. "You begin to understand that why you're the way you are may be related to who you came from," Remen says. "You realize, 'Oh, that's where I got my stubbornness, from my grandmother, who stood up to everyone.'"
Revive, too, some of the traditions and occasions that may have faded as you've grown up. If you spent every Christmas as a child at Uncle Harry's house with all your first cousins running around like banshees, invite everyone—including the next generation of banshees—for a rousing holiday feast at your home. Or throw a family reunion and include all the relatives (the great-aunts and great-uncles, the second and first cousins once removed). Sharing experiences as well as memories grounds you with a sense of belonging.
The one caveat is not to go overboard on the genealogy research, says Joyce Catlett, author, child mental health specialist, and frequent collaborator with Lisa Firestone on books and lectures. "I've seen people become obsessed. It's isolating. They spend months on the Internet," using the past to avoid engaging in the present. Instead of squirreling away what you learn, then, pass it along. "It's wonderful to claim a piece of the past for yourself, to find out that you're, say, part Irish," Galvin says. "But it's not much fun to be part Irish alone." So read to your children about St. Paddy; wear goofy green hats together. Traditions and memories that are carried on into the future link the next generation not only to the past but also to you.
Gretchen Reynolds lives in New Mexico.
More Ways to Strengthen Your Connections