family tree project

In third grade, we were charged with decorating the hallway outside our classroom with a mural of the solar system. Girls all but yanked each others’ braided pigtails for a chance to place Saturn. For whatever reason Saturn just seemed to be the sassy planet; she even wore a ring. Uranus was popular amongst the boys for obvious reasons; they took pleasure in emphasizing anus in the same way they delighted in adding "it" after a teacher would "Shhh" the room.

In fourth grade, we were tasked with creating our family tree, complete with dates, names, and photos. We even learned the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin, twice removed. Which seems pretty advanced, given that they ask such questions on the LSAT. I’m guessing I enjoyed this project most because it was, after all, about me. I was the sun.

Yesterday, my offspring were sent home with a request to bring in a family photo. They’d be discussing different types of families, and each child would have a chance to speak about his family members. And this is when my inner fourth grader waved her arm in the air, adding an "Oooh, ooh, pick me." It wasn’t enough that I simply print a photo of our nuclear family, with maybe three or four more photos of grandparents, and an aunt of two. No. My inner fourth grader needed to have her say.

family tree 02
Euripides, my grandfather, with his mother Iris (with whom I’ve had many a cafeteria afternoon)

It’s not that I want my children to ever feel compelled to go above and beyond what’s asked of them, and it’s not a question of praise, of wanting to do things better than anyone else. It’s, quite simply, about passion. I couldn’t just print out a damn photo, could I? No. Why not? Because I’m not built that way!

Instead, I thought, "I know! I’ll do a quick family tree for them, adding pictures of the relatives they know. I’m sure there’s some online program that lets you upload photos and print your family tree." A day later, my family tree has grown to 140 people and counting. It’s lead to my speaking with my mother-in-law for over an hour, reconnecting with cousins asking for details, stalking family on Facebook for their photos, and finally learning, "From which part of Greece, exactly, are we?" (Answer: Macedonia, aka Northern Greece). And it’s addictive. I don’t know why, but it is.

family tree 01My father, when he had hair

I’ve never been interested in this before and wonder if it’s a new fascination because I’m a mother, or because I’m aging. When my grandfather Sam was alive, he liked to go on and on and on and on about the family, hauling out the fat photo album.

"Now wait a while," he’d say, straining his eyes, examining the backs of photos for names. Nah, I have no idea who this one is." Then he’d talk about the way family used to be. Family used to be Sundays. It was extended and collaborative, with Sunday suppers and dining room table extensions. I want so much to have that.

Maybe that’s what it’s about for me. Finding a way to bring family back into my life, even if it’s only information. Even if it’s only learning meet cute stories of how my great grandparents came to marry. It kind of makes me want to change Lucas’s last name to Klein, just to keep our branch of the Klein family name alive.

family tree 03
Iris + Euripides (aka Big Yiya + Papoo)

Why, though, do you think so many people are interested in their ancestry? Is it vanity run amok (I want to see what my parents looked like as infants, as children, when they were my age)? Do people want to discover wills and money? For a sense of importance, to say you’re related to this famous philanthropist? Aside from medical history information, why do we want so much to know our own roots? What do we believe we’ll learn about who we are, at our core, by learning about our great grandfather’s profession or origin of birth?

My reason: it’s to feel like I’m a part of something bigger, connected to a universe of lives, with their own orbits, spheres of activity and interests. It makes me feel unconditionally accepted on some level, even by cousins I haven’t seen since I was thirteen. Because as we all know: you can pick your friends, you can pick your crack, but you can’t pick your family.



  1. I recently completed the creation of a DVD with musical soundtrack titled “Preserving the Past.” I want our grown children to have a photographic record of their family, the grandparents & great grandparents that I never knew, the great aunts and uncles that they never knew, my childhood, theirs too, our wedding & honeymoon…..all in Ken Burns mode as well as an alternate record in “scrapbook” mode. Actually, I’ve done this with almost all of the more than 3500 photos in my iPhoto, with each “album” set to its own soundtrack. Trips en famille as well as their own as teens, family friends, pets, parties etc., It’s a long project, but for creative types like you (and I), well worth the effort.

  2. That was really cool! I think you may have inspired some of your readers.

  3. My grandmother was also named Iris. Very inspiring post! I think it’s wonderful for your kids to see you with all this passion about their family and roots.

  4. YEIA SOU KOUKLA!!!!!!

    I love love love love these pics of Euripides and Yiayia Iris.. breaking dishes, and throwing my hands in the air, L-O-V-E!!!!!!! How Greek are these people, ma, how Greek, e, e???

    I have to light a cigarette to mark this blog entry, a Greek cigarette, unfiltered, with lots of attitude.

  5. As for whether or not it’s worth it to get the tree, it depends on what you want to get out of it!

  6. technology is amazing! i’m just now starting to get into this. i grew up hearing the stories and the ‘scandals’ and now i’m finally starting to put faces with the people in the stories.

  7. A picture of me with hair…ah, fond memories, but what about no moustache?

  8. I wish I knew a service that could help me find out more as my family has all passed.

  9. What an odd name Euripedes. Maybe it isn’t so odd in Greece. I might need to borrow that. Jacob is played.

  10. My hub just looked up a TON of relative (Norwegian) on a website, free that apparently is quite engrossing and helpful.. he’s made some headway. I have not cared much since I became a mommy. I am from a F*cked up, HUGE Irish Catholic family (if there is a next life, I sure as hell ain’t picking to be born into this stoic quarreling variety…) which is as dysfunctional as it comes. Divorce of my parents has literally rent the family in half and there’s scads of cousins, etc I have no interaction with. Even more depressing? I have found a lot of them (FACEBOOK STALKED!) and I see they are all friends with each other but me and my 3 brothers are all in orbit and yeah, it’s depressing. So, I am not sure if it’s a defense mechanism or I finally got so angry I really don’t give a damn I refuse to even look one person up now. I told my husband ‘they’re dead, they never knew me anyway.. and the ones alive are off in the ether, so whatever..’ and he pats me and says his family is big enough so the kids will have that at least. And then I feel guilty like I am depriving my kids of knowledge of their history. But it wasn’t even oart of *my* history, so how to integrate this? More annoying is my dad sitting on top of ALL the family photos he took from my mom and none of us kids have them. I have a few stragglers here and there, no dates or names on the backs so I make up stories about them each time I stumble across them. Funny but more sad I think… It’s always been a real achilles heel for me and if I could pick one thing it’s a normal big family that *gasp*! Has family sundays or even a reunion once a decade or so.


    Euripides is an Ancient Greek name, quite common in Greece.

  12. I was given my family tree by mom mom on my wedding day. I miss her but keep my roots close.

  13. I have recently become interested in my family tree and wonder where that comes from. I very much connect with my italian heritage which I have on both sides of the family. I miss my italian grandma for many reasons one of course is her stories about the days growing up during the depression in the Bronx.

    I think one reason for me is as you said Stephanie, to feel like you are a part of something bigger. My interest also came as I got older. I am now 40 and after having lost my dad 2 years ago I thought about how a huge part of my history was gone. I could no longer ask those questions about him and his family.

    I love the pictures! I have one of my grandma from the 40’s when she was married. It is one of my favorites of her.

    There is a show called “Who do you think you are?” on NBC that I heard about where celebrities go through this process of finding out their family trees. Has anyone see it?

    Great post Stephanie!

  14. I swear I’m the only person on earth who does not care one iota about their family history. I just feel that there’s nothing I could possibly find out that would change anything about the way I live my life or the way I feel about myself. I know that I’m mainly Greek and Italian and was raised Catholic. If you told me right now that that was all a mistake and I’m actually a Russian Jew… wouldn’t care one bit.

  15. Don’t know if you’ve done the research, but ancestry is actually a huge factor in the probability of an individual’s success.

  16. Lots of people say and/or think they have NA ancestry, but few actually do. If you want to hire a professional researcher, check with your local historical or genealogical society, but expect to pay alot of money and not necc. receive "proof" of a family legend.

    Unless you have 10-15K handy, I would suggest buying a good basic book on how to build a family history and work you way back to see if you can prove and/or disprove the family legend on your own.

    1. Andrew, I’ve been told I have Cherokee ancestry..

      I don’t know whether to believe it or not. The difficult thing in looking into it, is that the Cherokee did not keep records, so there really is no way to prove anything unless you’ve had continuous male descendants in the family.

  17. Better than the NBC show about geneolgoy is the work that Henry Louis Gates Jr. does on PBS (For reference he’s the “Beer Gate” guy, The Harvard Professor that got arrested breaking into his own house by a white police office both of whom ended up having a beer with Obama).

    Anyway, his first series was amazing and focused on the lives of famous African Americans and was called “African American Lives”… Chris Rock was on one episode, for example.

    “Faces of America” is his more recent documentary and it is about immigration and the United States, so the folks are from all histories (Eva Longoria, Yo Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Steven Colbert). Here’s the link to that one… Can you tell I’m obsessed? They are the most compelling stories and take geneology one step further and ties us all together. The tied, Elizabeth Alexander, a famous black poet back to King Charlamange.

    If they aren’t re-running the episodes so you can tivo it, add the series to your netflix. You won’t be dissapointed.

  18. Someone already mentioned it — “Who do you think you are?” on NBC is a show on exactly this stuff. I have only seen previews but it looks pretty amazing.

    Both my parents are immigrants. I’ve had the great opportunity of visiting where my (paternal) grandparents were born in Italy, and touring cities (in Colombia) where my (maternal) grandparents met and got married. Knowing your roots is fascinating. I think it made me feel more whole. How can you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you came from?

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