Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

One of my peak experiences was my mom’s 100th birthday party a year before her passing, where her inner light outshone the candles on the cake and where the cake reflected her love of picnics, complete with plastic ants adorning the frosting.
What if, in kinship with Google Doodles, my cousins and I held a party to honor the 144th birthday of our grandmother? Or the 182nd birthday of our great-grandmother, or even the 212th birthday of our great-great-grandmother?
We all remember Grandma. We could celebrate with her poppyseed cake, molasses cookies and slow-baked meringues (“kisses” to us kids). We could incorporate her favorite flower (lobelias) and tell oft-repeated stories of her life.
But we never knew our great-great-grandma. Yet she was most likely the woman who taught Great-Grandma to embroider the silk and velvet vests worn over white blouses — vests she sold to help pay for passage to America.
If we celebrated Great-Grandma’s birthday, we could decorate the party room with photos of similar vests and historic images of Bohemia, whence she emigrated at age 18 with Great-Grandpa and his parents.
When planning the party, consider what mementos and documents are available. Great-Grandma’s quilt or Great-Aunt Edna’s teapot might spark stories of their owners. Copies of baptismal records, emigration reports and marriage documents might be displayed. Photos of grave markers and copies of old letters could be posted.
How might guests immerse themselves in the places and times of their ancestor? Clear your mind of what a birthday party is supposed to be and let ideas surface. You might post a family tree, with space for guests to add information. You might play music that your ancestor would have enjoyed. Guests might bring an ethnic food to share.
Children could create a birthday card. Some might enjoy learning a prayer or saying in their ancestor’s language.
Guests might enjoy a Trivial Pursuit-type game, with everyone taking turns at drawing a family history question from a jar. (Who were Great-Grandpa’s parents? What was the name of Great-Aunt Dorothy’s horse? Where did the family spend Christmas Eve?) If they do not know the answer, they could select one other guest to help them.
Award prizes for the most correct answers. Prizes could be a history book, map of the Old Country or language dictionary. Or maybe that recipe for poppyseed cake.

Doris Green is the author of “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and a new edition of “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels in and Around the Badger State.” Both are available from http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your library or bookstore. Contact Doris at https://dorisgreenbooks.com/.