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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Knowing your history is knowing yourself

Why stories from our grandparents are important


By YASMEEN O’BRIEN — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu


I’m constantly in pursuit of finding my identity, searching for an understanding of myself that will allow me to better understand the world around me. As I’ve grown more independent and settled into my skin, a strong sense of identity has become my grounding force. This can come from many different places, but one of the most profound ways I have been impacted has been through learning about my family’s history. Knowing the stories of my ancestors has given me a fuller picture of myself. It is powerful and important to me to learn and preserve stories about my family history. 

One of the last things my grandmother ever said to me was, “Remember your roots.” At the time I didn’t process what it really meant, but I did write it down. As I sat at the edge of her bed, I realized how many questions I had never asked her. I was always looking for the right time to sit down and ask more about her life. Eventually, time ran out. 

Timing has never been my strong suit, and I’m sure many of you struggle with it as well. Oftentimes, it is out of our control. So how do we take control of the time we do have? How do we deal with losing close connections to our past, before we can ever ask about it? 

The truth is that losing our grandparents doesn’t have to mean losing a way to learn about our family history. Starting conversations and learning about their lives allows them to live on through our memories. We are the keepers of their stories and the stories of many of our ancestors. This realization has made me feel closer to my roots, and maybe even to a piece of myself I didn’t know was there. The beauty of these stories is that they outlive people. The things they taught me, wisdom they imparted upon me and stories they shared with me will stay with me throughout my life. Everything I learned from them shapes who I am and the decisions I make. 

There are many additional benefits to knowing where your family comes from. Learning about your family and embracing your culture can open your eyes to what makes you unique. This gives you a greater sense of self and improves your self-esteem. Discovering how your family persevered through difficult times can give you the courage and resilience you need to keep going. It builds strength and belief in yourself. Not to mention, knowing the history of diseases and illnesses in your family can help you make good choices to ensure you are staying healthy. 

While the impact of these benefits differs from person to person, they are a valuable addition to anyone’s life. Humans are knowledge-seeking, social creatures. We desire attachment and belonging. Connecting to our family and to our pasts gives us these things. 

We have limited time with our family. While my ability to learn about my heritage is not something that everybody has access to, if you can, spend time during the upcoming holidays listening to the stories of those that came before you. You can’t find that kind of wisdom anywhere else. It is valuable, memorable and personal — not only to yourself, but to future generations as well.

Ask your grandmother what her biggest dream was when she was your age. What achievements was she proud of? Ask your grandfather about his relationship with his father. Who is someone that impacted them deeply? Ask what they used to do for fun when they were little. Learn their stories while you still can. Remember your roots.


Written by: Yasmeen O’Brien — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu


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