I love the above photo, obviously taken before the TV became the focal point in the "front room", because it depicts how many of us remember Christmases Past.
Fuzzy. Out of focus.
But we could be pretty sure every person present for Christmas dinner was our grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, or cousin.
Fast forward 50 or 60 years...
Between Thanksgiving and the weekend after Christmas, many Americans gather with family or friends to exchange gifts and best wishes and consume enough food to feed a Third World village for a month.
Such occasions often include that great American tribal ritual, Watching Football, where we sit around yelling at guys paid millions to be away from their own families on national holidays so we won't have to actually talk to people we never see - or don't want to see - except at the holidays.
Pedigree charts aren't just for AKA-registered, pure-bred puppies or royalty or Old Money Blue Bloods. Even if the only papers associated with your puppy are the ones you read with your morning coffee, or you only took the wheels off your home last week, you already too can have one.
Something called the "Rule of 14" (2+4+8=14) applies to every person on the planet, even adoptees and those conceived in a petri dish. It simply means two biological parents, four biological grandparents, and eight biological great-grandparents. You may not know them, or even know their names (yet), but they exist - or did exist at some point - or you wouldn't be here reading this.
That's just the way it works, and has since the beginning of time.
Back in the days of "Til death do us part", it was easy for a child to keep track of how people were related to each other. Your parents' brothers and sisters were your aunts and uncles, their children were your cousins, your siblings' spouses were your brothers- and sisters-in-law, and their children were your nieces or nephews.
These days, single parents and "his, hers, and ours" families are the norm, not the exception. Grandpa's third wife insists on being called "Grandma" by the children of his children from his first marriage, and pouts if they don't (or won't).
Personally, I think children are the losers when the boundaries of their identity are blurred with "aunts", "uncles", "grandmas" and "grandpas" who aren't related to them in any way other than by virtue of whatever relationship the parent happens to have with that person at the moment.
Call me a prude, but such blurring diminishes the "specialness" of those who truly are blood relatives. No wonder many children feel they don't "belong" anywhere. How confusing for a child if every older woman who visits is "Grandma", or every older man is "Uncle" or "Grandpa", rather than introduced simply (and correctly) as "my friend Helen" or "my friend George" or "Mr./Mrs. Such-and-such".
[Right here, I have to tell you that I had to eat a bit of crow several months after I published this when my son's 5-yr-old stepdaughter, whose own biological grandmothers she rarely sees because they live so far away, took me aside to ask if she could call me "Grandma" same as my grandson, her half-brother. Her solemn expression said this was not only very important to her, but that she'd given it a lot of thought, so naturally I said "Yes".]
Clarifying who begat who isn't rocket science.
Compiling a pedigree chart, also known as a family tree, is an easy way to avoid confusion and clarify who begat who.
The simplest method for recording your own or a child's 2-4-8 is on a diagram like the one at the right, similar to Rudolph's antlers pictured above right. (No, he isn't suffering from a debilitating antler disease...)
Filling in a 4-generation pedigree chart is easy. Enter the appropriate name on each line (maiden name for females) and underneath each, dates and places of birth, marriage, and death (if deceased).
On a 4-gen chart, males are on top and females on the bottom. (I didn't make the rules, ladies!)
Don't worry if you don't have all the information yet - gathering it will give you something to do during lulls in The Game at holiday get togethers. Yes, this means you may have to actually talk to some of those relatives you can't stand, but it's a holiday for heavens sake.
But if you really can't tear yourself away from the game, your children can make the rounds and gather the information for you instead of, if they're teenagers, running off to the mall (or texting each other ad nauseum from across the room).
The 7-gen fan chart above is a bit more complicated, and not to be approached by the faint of heart. Fan charts can be purchased from most genealogical or family history suppliers, or you can copy and paste the one here to an imaging program and print it on legal-size paper (8.5" X 14").
But if you're a truly brave soul and really really good with drafting tools, draw one on the paper of your choice. The key is to start with a perfect circle at bottom-center and work out from there.
No matter which chart you use, filling it in isn't as difficult as it sounds.
For a fan chart, begin at the first generation (yourself or your child/ren) and work your way out. Meaning your writing hand will be resting on the lettering for each previous generation, so to avoid smudging, place a blank sheet of paper under your hand as you work.
The father's side of the family goes on the left and the mother's on the right.
Below is how the fan chart will look when filled in (minus the red labels, of course). Click to view full size.
Don't be upset if you can't fill all the slots. After diligent searching, at some point you may have to accept that an ancestor's records were lost forever to fire or flood, or dates and names were never recorded in the first place. Veteran family historians who've been at this for decades have many blank spots in their own charts.
Although paper is the best medium for making copies, pedigree charts don't necessarily have to be on paper. A family named Stephens of York County, Pennsylvania, had theirs woven into a large rug. Imagine the work that went into making that!
Another family used twigs to fashion a miniature tree inside a shadow box, with paper leaves containing the names of each family member and his/her spouse and their children hot-glued to the appropriate branches.
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The possibilities are endless!
Use your imagination!
It's wise, however, to use a medium where additional generations can be added without destroying the original.