Can you name all four of your grandparents?  You probably can.  Going back one more generation, can you name all EIGHT of your great-grandparents?  Most people cannot. 


by Jeannine Bryant

My husband and I did the 23 and Me genetic kits this past year.  It has renewed my husband’s (previously non-existent) interest in his family tree, and we’ve started having interesting conversations with his mom and sister about their ancestors.

We also started filling out a family tree for our children (ages 8 and 5) so they can see who their relatives are a few generations back.  The first few branches of that family tree were easy to fill out – parent’s names, grandparent’s names.  But then, it got a lot more difficult.

Can you name all four of your grandparents?  You probably can.  Going back one more generation, can you name all EIGHT of your great-grandparents?  Most people cannot.

I know more than many do about my own family history, because it’s something I am genuinely interested in.  But even I could not name all EIGHT great-grandparents off the top of my head (I had to look it up in the records I have).  Once I found them, I thought – “Oh yes, I remember hearing about that person.”  That’s because my father is a huge history buff and was very interested in both his family tree and my mother’s family tree.  He talked about those people, and showed us photos, and connected a lot of dots for us.

My husband, on the other hand, did not have that experience growing up.  He knew all four of his grandparents, but beyond that he wasn’t able to name a single great-grandparent without first checking with his mother.  And even then, books and records had to be consulted before we could really come up with even some of those names.  In the end, we were able to definitively identify five of his eight great-grandparents.

All of this got me thinking about my own descendants, and how one day, even I will be forgotten.  And if this exercise taught me anything, it’s that that day is coming sooner than I’d like to admit.  My great-grandparents were all born during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  The last one passed away in 1964.

Approximately 55-65 years have passed since all eight of my great-grandparents have passed away, and I barely remember their namesNow that is a sobering thought.

Am I an anomaly?  Am I just an ungrateful kid who can’t take the time to learn about her family’s history, heritage, and roots?  No, I don’t think so anyway.  I think I’m pretty typical.  In fact, I think I have more connection to my ancestors than a lot of folks.  I think we remain fairly connected to our great-grandparents while our parents are still alive, because of course our parents are more likely to remember their grandparents, and can share stories about them with us.  But after our parents are gone, it becomes a lot easier to forget that generation that is three branches removed from us on the family tree.

This is an interesting perspective on life and the passage of time.  I think it is interesting when we think about our possessions and our hopes of passing on the “stuff” that is so very important to us.  I don’t think it means our stuff shouldn’t be important – no, your stuff can and should matter to you, and some of it will matter to your children after you are gone, and maybe even your grandchildren.  But your great-grandchildren?  That’s a bigger leap to make, and the chances are greater that the meaning of your things will be lost as time marches on.