The Lessons I Learned From My Family Tree

When I was in high school, I went through a period where I was obsessed with building a thorough family tree. I tried to thoroughly document my ancestors as many generations back as possible, adding as much detail to them as I could.

On my mother’s side, I was able to dig back several generations, particularly in one lineage. I was able to discover ancestors that had been dairy farmers in rural Wisconsin in the 1800s and I was able to fill out names and birth dates at least dating back six generations in a few places.

On my father’s side, the digging was very difficult once you started looking at my grandparents. I relied on some hand-scratched notes from my paternal grandmother to figure out some information about my great grandparents, but I essentially have no information prior to that.

What’s amazing to me is that these people are essentially lost to the mists of time, even though they have descendants today who are actively looking for them. These people, in the end, left no mark on the world aside from passing on their genes and their values to their children.

Until very recently, I was essentially heading for the same result. Until I started The Simple Dollar, my name had only appeared on a small handful of largely uncited scientific papers which very few people will ever read. I have a number of handwritten letters floating around out there, but many of those have likely found their way to trash cans over the years.

In the last year, I’ve been lucky to see quite a bit of my writing in print, and there are literally thousands of copies of 365 Ways to Live Cheap floating around out there in print. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write things that have impacted thousands of lives, and at least a few things I’ve written will stick around for a while.

Yet, in the end, my mark on the world will be painted over by time as well.

What can I do with my life that will leave more of a mark on the world than just another name on someone’s family tree in a hundred years?

The most obvious thing is to take care of my children and give them every tool and every opportunity I can to allow them to succeed in life. In this case, obviously, it would not be my own mark on the world, but I will have been the person most responsible (along with my wife) for shaping someone who did something great.

This calls me to be a good parent. When I’m being a bit facetious, I describe good parenting as “love and grammar,” but that’s a big part of it. My job is to show my children love, but also teach them the basics of, well, life. At their young age, it’s simple lessons – how to be polite, how to use the bathroom. As they grow, I’ll push how they think and how they express those thoughts to others.

After that, my best opportunity to make a mark on the world is through my writing. By some stroke of luck, The Simple Dollar has given me an opening – an opportunity to share my writing with a large audience.

This calls me to push myself to be a good writer. Sure, I post a lot of articles for free on The Simple Dollar, but that’s just part of what I write. I write some freelance articles. I’ve written a book and started writing a second one. I’ve written some unpublished fiction, too, and on top of that I also journal extensively and also try out some writing exercises from time to time. I’m a big believer in the “fifty pounds of pottery makes you a better potter” theory, so I write. And read. And write. And edit. And write some more. Eventually, I hope to be able to write things – hopefully, a lot of things – that transcend my life and last for a very long time.

My other avenue for leaving behind a mark is sharing what gifts I have in a public forum. For me, that means being involved in volunteerism, particularly in starting such projects and managing them for the long term.

This calls me to dig into opportunities in the community – and create my own. I’ve already started doing this by participating in a number of community organizations and activities, and I have a few ideas for initiatives that I want to start in the future.

In the end, I’m left with some pretty big things to focus on: my family, my writing, and my civic-minded projects.

Whenever I devote significant time or significant money to things that aren’t in line with these areas, I think back to all of those names I’ve written down in my family tree. Those forgotten ancestors of mine had dreams as well, but those dreams were lost in the mists of time.

Today, every day, I have a choice. I can make the easy choice – but that choice will lead me to be just another name on someone’s family tree. Or I can make the hard choice – focus on being a good parent, work hard on my writing and my community activities, and maybe, just maybe, leave something more behind than just my genes.

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26 thoughts on “The Lessons I Learned From My Family Tree

  1. Michael says:

    Sorry to say you’ll still be anonymous at the rate you’re going. Some of my ancestors did some impressive things, but nobody knows who they are today.

  2. plonkee says:

    It’s true that you’ll still almost certainly become anonymous eventually. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t leave a mark, just that you’re not likely to be remembered for it for more than a few years/decades/centuries once you’re dead. After all, people have had an effect on your life, and caused you to do things that have an effect on other people’s etc, etc. Hopefully they’ll be positive, on average.

  3. I had something of a similar experience when I started researching my own family tree. I found quite a bit of information, but on my paternal grandfather’s side, well, we’re limited to what he remembers — his parents, siblings and other relatives all perished in the Holocaust.

    Never underestimate the value of something so simple as telling your own children about their roots. Sure, getting in print is a great way to leave your mark on the world, but in truth, it always comes down to what your kids and grandkids are actually able to remember. They, at least, will want to know who you are.

  4. Saver Queen says:

    I”m not sure of being “anonymous” is really the point. The way we treat people, the values we share, the choices we make, can have effects on others that may or may not outlast us. Even if we help total strangers, who never learn our names, we make a difference that transcends our own awareness. It is possible to leave a legacy simply by participating in, and promoting, a peaceful existence. That may have nothing to do with being famous for years to come.

    That being said, if you really want to have other generations familiar with who you are, a great way to do it is through memoirs. My father wrote a book about his father, who immigrated from Holland and then passed away when my dad was a teenager. He also interviewed and wrote the memoirs (a literal translation) for my other grandfather before he died. It is a wonderful gift for the family. I got to know a grandfather I never met. (it certainly explains some things about my dad!)

    But I still believe, that regardless if my name is remembered for years to come, I have a responsibility here and now, to make a difference to the lives of others, promote peace wherever possible, and that somehow that intention has an effect that is bigger than me.

  5. IRG says:

    Trent
    You’re hardly anonymous as “MIchael” wrote, but that’s not the point.

    I don’t think you were writing about being famous or infamous for your work and/or writing. (Although in rereading, I can see how Michael may have gotten that impression and hence his comment.)

    You were, I think, talking about leaving a legacy of your work along with the more important tasks of creating and raising and nurturing (for ALL your and their lives) a family, one whose contributions may be the ultimate legacy. (Many a humble parent brought forth a child who went on to do something on a scale never imagined that may have changed the world.)

    We often leave a lot more behind than can be known or tallied, or be in a form that is still available for public reference.

    You make positive points about using your time wisely on what matters to you. Family, first and foremost and then your writing.

    As you must know, there are many things that have been written, and not published, as well as many things that were published, in the past, at times when there was no way to preserve them. Are they any less valuable because they did not physically survive or were not seen by subsequent generations?

    I was taught that we do our work, craft, art, etc. for the pleasure and joy we get–and, in some cases, give to others. Mostly, we all write or paint or sculpt or whatever because we HAVE to. It’s a form of expression. And whether the world knows of it or embraces it, we still do it. “Publication” or exhibitions or public acknowledgment is the gravy.

    There is no guarantee that anything will last into the future (even, gasp, all the crap that is on the Internet) and be available to future generations. Let alone valued beyond a mere 15 minutes.

    We plant seeds by our behavior, our compassion, our caring, our attention and our presence in the lives of those we care about and to a larger community. (Every one can’t be Martin Luther King or other iconic figures. But the way each of us treats everyone we meet, CAN make a huge difference in the world.)

    Few people will be able to leave more than their genes (and possibly their good works) in generations to come, that does not mean what they did was any less real or valuable or important.

    I have not been able to trace my family back, but I humbly acknowledge that I am the beneficiary of my ancestors in ways I probably will never know. (I’m very unlike anyone in my family…something many have noted. And I wish I could find information on those ancestors, because I know my gifts, talents, etc. did NOT spring from nowhere. I know that somewhere, I am perhaps the embodiment of another’s hopes and dreams. That I didn’t arrive here in my own life without them.)

    Don’t worry about where your name shows up. Continue to do your work, work you love and believe in. Again, one of the reasons I enjoy your blog is its relevance and its authenticity.

    It’s clear you are trying to help others by sharing your life and thoughts. You’re not, like a lot of people, using your work simply as a vehicle to “make a name” or build a brand.

    That you may accomplish this in the process is great. But what makes anything truly valuable, and lasting, is authenticity.

    Think of the great writers in any field and what they are remembered for is their authentic and unique voice.

    And keep in mind…a large number of writers and artists NEVER knew fame, success (on any level) during their lifetimes. Many were only “discovered” afterwards.

    There is never a guarantee that what we do, the seeds we plant, will grow into a lush garden.

    We plan, we plant and we maintain. That’s all we can do. Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the results.

  6. Alison says:

    I think you have just highlighted how to make your mark last. A lesson I learned early on that I value the most (although it may not be true for all) is that the ones who will remember you the longest and the best are your family (blood or chosen family). And any fame or publications, even if miraculous, might put your name in an encyclopedia but will never capture who you were.

    The lesson here for me has always been to keep my personal relations a priority, and if I do it right, they will carry on my name and my values longer than my permanent record.

  7. You know I’ve given this some thought as well. And my conclusion is that I don’t mind fading into the mists of time. Few people leave any kind of enduring image behind them, and many of those are not positive. I can’t see how it matters to the quality of my life if someone will remember me and know something about me 50 years after I’m dead and gone. I don’t even have kids, so I don’t have that sense of “leaving” something behind. All I’ve got is a garden and some nephews, who I hope will remember me fondly. But if, 80 years from now, they rarely think about me, it’s sure not hurting me any right now.

    I find it almost comforting to know that I will die and leave no trace in history. That’s the fate of the vast majority of humans and all living things. I can live with it.

  8. Jammie says:

    It is my opinion that your book would sell more copies if you also offered it in an ebook form, especially in a Kindle format on Amazon. That would open up a whole new audience for you.

  9. Karen says:

    The best thing you can do is to write your own story, not just the articles & books you do, but write about the lovestory you have with your wife, how you met, your courtship, your wedding, the life you have together, the birth of your children etc.

    Being a genealogist & a speaker I encourage people to take the time to write their life, your impressions of the elections, your views of the world, and leave them in a format that your children and those descendants who come after you can read – leaving those things behind along with photos etc will ensure that the people who matter, the descendants will know the real you. The things that mattered, family, home etc., to you.

    Don’t let anyone tell you that they won’t care, because the day will come when they will. It doesn’t matter if you are a rock star, or a famous quarterback, to your descendants in the future what matters is who you, the real person was. What you stood for, who you loved, the things that mattered. Make the time to record those things, Its worth it!

    Karen (Michigan)

  10. iddy says:

    Trent, you’ve just touched the subject of things such as imortality.
    When humans cease to be, what would have ultimately been worth doing? what mark would remain?
    It’s inevitable in some billion billion years the Earth will be gone. What will remain of human history and culture? What will remain of anything that has happened here?
    Many more years later the Universe will run out of energy, and begin to pull itself back in, closing up to start again, again. The big crunch will be followed by a big bang, erasing everything. Everything.
    To wish to preserve your essence is only human, the selfish desire to pass on ourselves, to procreate etc. However we will be forgotten. No matter how significant we make our lives, people find new deitys and new gods to follow, and the rest fall to the pages of time.

    Another way of thinking about it, is if everyone were to pass on something significant, the world would be filled up pretty quickly. Like, if people didn’t die, but children kept being born, eventually we would starve/be far too cramped.
    To not loose some culture, and forget those before us, we restrict ourselve, and have no room for anything new. We stop creativity. Like inbreeding or a stagnant pond.

    Everything has to die. Culture, life, souls, the earth, the universe. It exists only for a time, sometimes for ages and sometimes for only a fraction of a second.

  11. 444 says:

    You guys are especially maudlin for a rainy/snowy Wednesday afternoon.

    My great-grandmother’s brother founded a school and associated junior college in Georgia.

    That just happens to be something that remains documented in various places, but all of our predecessors did plenty of positive things that simply aren’t easy to identify and quantify. It would be nice if biographies came with genealogical data. It is frustrating to see whole families and families before them reduced to lists of names and dates, with no stories connected.

  12. kathee says:

    Share your family info on ancestry.com – it’s amazing what info you may discover there, free! I have found several cousins I didn’t know about, several times removed. One is in the process of writing his family history, in which I have able to provide some filling of holes. It’s fun – but it sure can consume into the rabbit hole!

  13. Nebula says:

    I agree totally with Kate@LivingtheFrugalLife #6; what’s wrong with living your life for what it means to you? I value my life, and I don’t care if I’m remembered or not. I don’t want to spread my genes around (really don’t see the point of that) and I only want to spread good will around while I’m alive.

  14. Steph says:

    I understand what you mean. I used to worry that I would fade into disappearance in a generation or two. Finding myself on google really cheered me up. As early as two years ago if I googled my name in quotes I didn’t come up (I have an unusual and uncommon last name). Now when I do a few things come up. A small way to measure success, I know, but the way I see it my name is now on the map.

  15. Janet Rowley says:

    I hope that the values I instill into my 2 daughters will live on past my life. I still remember many stories from my grandmother and she died in 1964. I hope that I am leaving little pieces of myself in the writing that I have done in journals for my daughters and in my blog. I hope that they were really listening all these years as I have been talking to them.

  16. almost there says:

    I think it is a good thing that most people in the USA are not remembered. Life goes on and people live their lives in relative obscurity with their memory fading as their friends and relatives pass on. I wouldn’t want to be part of the People magazine or Entertainment crowd. Now if one wants to be remembered- become a serial killer. They are remembered by their first, middle and last names! My father was part of the most significant/memorable event that happened with the marine corps in WWII (was part of the first group of marines that ascended Mt. Subarachi and planted the flag during the battle for Iwo Jima) but he and his family are the only ones that know. Why? Because he never talked about it. But he did his part for his country suffering lifelong disabilities. There are millions like him that contributed to this great country and remain unrecognized. Perhaps a fault of our society is that people want to be larger-than-life vs each doing their daily simple things contribute to the overall good of society.

  17. Maureen says:

    My father passed away 3 weeks ago. He was in his 89th year. My siblings and I found great comfort in old family photos. He touched many lives as a teacher, businessman and even scout leader. Some of these contributions were documented in the photos. Mostly they reflected family life. I hope to pass on these photos to his grandchildren and their children.

    I suggest you and your wife explore scrapbooking. It will allow you to document important milestones in your life and your childrens’ lives. In future years they will enjoy seeing photos of themselves as children and seeing how important your family is to you. Include journaling with the photos to tell the story and share your feelings. It will likely be an heirloom treasured by future generations of your family. It would certainly be a more personal and intimate monument to your existence.

  18. Dan says:

    I would disagree with the idea that your ancestors left no mark in the world. Your ancestors got up everyday and made the world work. They weren’t in it for the pride of their name lasting forever. They were the unsung heroes that answered the call of what needed to be done in their day, like we should in ours.

  19. Ishan says:

    I don’t think we are really anonymous. We are well known, even if in the closed circle around us

  20. Interesting topic.

    A lasting legacy is a tough thing to build– I have often thought of trying to leave a brief record of my life and learnings for my kids to share with their kids . . . I guess it would need to be in the form of letters or a journal.

  21. Dominique says:

    What a beautiful sentiment. Thank you for inspiring me today.

  22. Kevin says:

    I really like Dan’s (#13) comment. I mean, here’s something to consider: There isn’t one single living person on the entire planet who was here 130 years ago. Every single person on this planet was born in the last 130 years. We inherited all the knowledge, inventions, and technology that was discovered and created by people who are now all dead. They’ve passed it all on to us, so we didn’t have to start from scratch and invent the wheel and fire and the telephone all over again.

    Similarly, consider that in the year 2150, every single person who is currently walking on this Earth will be dead. Not a single one of us will remain. Yet the people who will be alive in 2150 will enjoy the technology and knowledge that we will pass on to them. They’re depending on us to make their lives better, and they don’t even exist yet.

    Does it really matter if they know our names or not?

  23. Ken says:

    Here’s another way to affect your family tree: Teach them to be debt free..ie..teach them how to be responsible with money.

  24. Ian P. says:

    There is one thing that we all leave behind which remains forever. It is the impression and influence we’ve had on others. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from coach Lou Holtz. It sums up what I’m talking about.
    “Coaching gives one a chance to be successful as well as significant. The difference between those two is that when you die, your success comes to an end. When you are significant, you continue to help others be successful long after you are gone. Significance lasts many lifetimes. That is why people teach, why people lead, and why people coach.”

  25. littlepitcher says:

    Do leave a written or oral record of your life. If your relatives will do the same, you will have an impressive effect upon your descendants.

    I have to rely on tales heard (or overheard) during childhood to document hereditary diseases, ethnicity, and which family lines to avoid. Written records were available only for the male ancestors. Leave your children plenty of information, even if inadequately documented at your end. They will have the pleasure of doing the research.a

  26. Gaurav says:

    I used to think like this. I wanted to, and still do, want to do something that makes such a big impact to the way people live that people remember who I am, or was when I go. However, I can’t help but think at times, that is a wrong approach. Why obsess about whether people can remember you or not and then decide what you can do to make it so, and why not just keep doing great work according to you and let your work decide whether you are worth remembering or not. I think megalomaniacs think the way we are thinking and they try to achieve big things at great cost to others. It is better to be nothing or something based on your work. If nothing survives, your values and influence to your near and dear ones is good enough. I think materially, I would be very happy if nothing survives after 100 years. Even if only few people talk about my feelings, thoughts, values, deeds, my way of life, I would be very happy.

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