Perennial Gen co-founder Michelle Van Loon has released a new book that’s for everyone who has ever wondered about how their family’s history has shaped them. It’s called Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma. This endorsement from bestselling author Dorena Williamson captures the book’s purpose and intent: “As I grow older, I long to know more about the people in my family tree. This timely book helps me reconcile the people and places that make up my genealogy. Translating Your Past is a gift box for every reader, reminding us that our story is a valuable mosaic, carefully woven together by the Author of life. Michelle Van Loon’s words welcome us to behold our beautiful and broken family history through a redemptive lens, assuring us that we are indeed part of God’s good work!”
We’re celebrating with Michelle this month as our posts on this website will focus on family stories. And we’re doing a give-away of her new book! It is a compelling read for personal study and reflection, and would make a perfect book to share with your book club, Bible study, or small group. To enter, simply click here and give us your name and mailing address (U.S. addresses only, please) before midnight Eastern time, Saturday, March 12th.
Michelle shares a bit from the book (below) about when and why she first began pondering the topic of our family stories. Enjoy!
“Don’t you ever wonder where you come from?”
I knew I was breaking an unwritten rule in my family by asking my mom that question. That rule had suffocated every discussion of family history for as long as I could remember. Though I knew the skeleton story of my mom’s origins, I learned early that if no one asked any questions, there’d be no need to reckon with the painful answers.
The ice-cold fire in my mom’s eyes told me I had crossed a line. “No”, she answered, and paused a moment before she turned her back to me to signal that the discussion was over. But before she did, I thought I saw something different steal across her face—something I’d never witnessed before. I saw deep sadness, just for a moment, before her anger locked it away where no one could get near it.
I was very familiar with that anger. But I’d never seen the sadness before.
My hunger to know about the missing pieces of my family’s story gave my teenaged self a boost of boldness as I decided to press my mother that day in 1977 in our suburban Chicago kitchen. I took a deep breath and forged ahead. “You might not want to know, but I do, mom.” She kept her back turned to me, and her silence signaled the conversation was over.
I had been emboldened to break the rule by the cultural moment in which we were living. Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the ground-breaking 1977 TV miniseries based on author Alex Haley’s best-selling book detailing his quest to trace his family’s lineage through generations of inhumane slavery in the South back to their homeland in Gambia, had ignited a wave of popular interest in genealogy in the 1970’s. Prior to the modern Civil Rights movement, genealogical research tended to be reserved for royalty and for those looking to establish their pedigree to belong in socially- and racially- exclusive organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Roots shattered those notions for many viewers, who found in Haley’s saga the encouragement they needed to discover and honor their own family stories for the first time.
Sometimes our family stories are a book we’d rather not open.
Even when we might wish to leave that book on the shelf, we bear those stories deep within us. We carry with us genetic code, the history of the family in which we grew up, the influence of the communities and culture that both formed our forebears and shape our own life experience, and the unique imprint of our Maker who created us. Our history is not destiny, but it is a living preface to our experience.
But many of our stories are anything but easy reading. Some have sections written in indecipherable text or appear to be missing chapters. Others appear stitched together from a variety of unrelated volumes, or have shredded pages. These accounts have been written by many authors, in many places and times, and often seem more like a bunch of faded, illegible messages in multiple bottles that have washed up on a distant shore—a curiosity, but with nothing meaningful to say to us here and now.
When I asked my mom about her origins, I knew at least some of the answers to my questions were only a phone call away. I grew up knowing some basic facts about her story: Her mother, my maternal grandmother Molly Klopman, died shortly after giving birth to my mom in 1938 in New York City. Her father, George, wasn’t able to care for a newborn. An infertile cousin and her husband in Chicago agreed to adopt the baby with the proviso that the adoption remain a secret. Everyone in the family agreed it would be for the best. But shortly before my mother was to marry, George called and spilled the truth in 1957. He wanted to come to the wedding to see Molly’s baby walk down the aisle.
That information was a grenade that blew up my mom’s life, though no one in the family understood at the time just how deep the damage went. Instead, the shrapnel was reconfigured in time for happy family pictures with the parents who’d raised her. I’ve been told George came to the wedding and sat in the back of the room. He’s not in any of the pictures in the wedding album.
I would discover that beneath this sketch of the facts, there was a pile of pain around these secrets she didn’t want to touch and couldn’t forgive. I may not have had words for it at the time, but when I asked my mom for more information about her family of origin in 1977, I was looking for the truth about not only her life, but mine.