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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Importance of family history finally sinking in

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

I'm not very good with numbers.

I forget birthdays constantly. I lose track of time. I have no natural feel for measurements, like distance or weight. Math wasn't my strongest subject.

But my family history is all about numbers.

For example: one. That is the number of times a day my father sends an email to all of his children with a list of names of our ancestors who did something on that day in history.

Last Wednesday, the email in my inbox told me that on that day in 1402, William I of Guelders and Julich died. William apparently led an army in crusades against the Lithuanians in East Prussia. The email the day before said sometime in February in 1801, someone named Thomas Cochrane got into an argument with a French officer at a "fancy dress ball."

I can tell you — to my father's eternal chagrin — I have no idea who either of these men were, nor my connection to them. For as long as I can remember, my father has told me details of our ancestors, going back to dates in the triple digits, in a lifelong campaign to get me to take an interest in family history.

But it always goes over my head.

I guess I'm not very good with names, either. And the barrage of people, and what they did, and their distant connection to me, is often overwhelming to the point that I can't keep it all straight. The dates become a blur. My relationship to those ancestors feels so removed and diluted I tune them out.

Sometimes, out of desperation at our disinterest, my father tries to bribe my siblings and me with a nickel for every name we memorize from our family tree. But for all of the memories I have of his efforts to preserve our ancestry, I don't recall him telling as many stories of our closest relatives, like his mother, Fleeta. We never knew her, either.

So I called my eldest sister, a psychologist, to talk about it.

"Why didn't he tell us more about Grandma Choate?" I asked her.

"Maybe you weren't paying attention," she said.

She had a point. When it came to family history, names and dates, I ignored a lot. But then I learned something about my deceased grandmother that changed all of that: the number four.

That is how old Fleeta was when her mother died. In 1915, it wasn't proper for a man to raise his children alone, so rather than going into foster care, Fleeta went to live with her elder brother, who was a newlywed. She never lived at home again.

Four is also the age of my daughter, almost. From close personal experience, I know that 4-year-olds have a keen awareness and capability, but a fragile vulnerability and need for stability. When I consider the possibility of my daughter losing her parents and leaving home at this age, my heart is wrenched in agony at the thought of the bewilderment and hurt she would feel.

Imagining my grandmother in that very real situation gives me insight into how much that must have changed her. And how much her family must have loved her, to keep her safe.

My family history may be a dizzying collection of names and numbers, but after a lifetime of overlooking their meaning, the numbers are sinking in.

And I'm paying attention.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer at the Deseret News. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer.

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