Building a FAMILY TREE: Legacy

A HOW TO GUIDE & My Personal Journey

Madsen Norman family


I’m unsure whether my curiosity for nostalgia originated from my mother’s side or my father’s. To be sure, I listened to the tales of lives of those I both knew and only knew of from my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandmother and great-grandparents. I had the great fortune of knowing most of my great grandparents, a distinct honor not bestowed upon many, I know. This, in part, is due to my parents becoming parents at such a young age. I was an oops baby, the one that set my family’s journey in motion. Perhaps that’s where the curiosity originated. I could listen for hours to any of my grandparents telling me stories of old. “Back in the day,” as they almost always began.
Angela, my maternal grandmother, always told me stories of relationships. Of who got along with whom and the converse. She wove a tale of two Italian immigrant families (of the generation before her own) with the kinds of stories represented in movies like Moonstruck and The Godfather (though, I never heard of any authentic mafia connections). But the relationships were loud, volatile, and full of a peculiar kind of love– tough love, old school love. Families were extended, even in their homes; Italians don’t move far away from one another and there was always room at the kitchen table for more and food to feed them all.
Carmen, my grandfather, told me different kinds of stories. His were mostly war stories. He seemed fixed on his time in the army during World War II where his troop had been deployed to Guadalcanal. He talked of brotherhood and isolation. Of fear and pride. All of the seemingly opposite things that were one in his eyes. He showed me medals and photographs. I learned words like bivouac and rations. I read his letters to my grandmother, the one thing, he said, that kept him alive. I have the tiny, government issued bible, that he kept in his pocket throughout the war.
Evelyn, my maternal grandmother, whose birth name had been Mary, went by her middle name (I don’t think I ever learned why. It always fascinated me that my great grandparents would give her one name, but then call her another). She told of tangled webs. We were a mutt of a family: descendants coming from France, Sweden, Denmark and Germany… Those from these countries in Europe apparently didn’t stay close like my Italian side. We had people, it seemed, from all around the world whether by birth or by travel. In fact, after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother set out to visit as many countries as she could, and she brought me back a little doll from each place. My love for travel is surely born of hers. History is something else I learned from Evelyn’s tales. She showed me documents she kept, like my great-grandfather’s visa to the U.S. with a different last name. Instead of my maiden name being Norman, I discovered it had been Johansen, but he couldn’t fit his entire name on the card, so he dropped his last and kept one of his middle names as his last. She also told me this grandfather had two wives, two families (though, through my own research, I have not found proof of that). In her soft voice, she drew me in and told me a secret that we are related to Paul Revere. I wore that fact proud when we celebrated the bicentennial at school in the 6th grade.
So many stories stuck with me over the years, and inside me I yearned to know more. To understand.


In the eighth grade, we did a unit on lineage. We explored our family crests and were given a directive to create our own family tree. I interviewed my grandparents who shared names and more photos, so I could put a face to their names. The photos led them to more remembering, more sharing, and I took it all in.

BAFT old treeSome years later, my paternal uncle, Richard, began asking me if I’d worked any more on our family tree. He lived in another state, so I’d see him only occasionally, but every time I did, he’d ask. It seemed we shared a love of nostalgia and lineage. In the back of my mind, I always knew I would explore further, dig deeper, but finding the time was e issue. Not to mention finding the means.

The Task

The means presenting itself to me when a pop-up came across my computer screen for I decided to give the light (read: free) version a try. It allowed me to recreate my paper version of a tree in a neat, logically organized web, but to go deeper, I would need to join.
I decided to join when my Uncle Dick, Aunt Kathy, and cousins Johnny & Jan decided to host a family reunion. They set a date for the summer of 2014. That was enough motivation to begin my search.

The Journey
Hundreds of hours later, I’ve come up with a pretty comprehensive version for my dad’s side of the family (both on his maternal and paternal sides). The thing about Ancestry,com is it opens up a world of search engines that the layperson wouldn’t even know existed. I found access to census reports, birth& death certificates, burial information, military records, travel logs, etc. that I never would have even thought to look for on my own. That is the positive. The negative is the eventual, unavoidable dead-ends that one encounters. It’s important to check one piece of data against another to find the most accurate information, checking and cross checking became both my friend and my enemy. Patience was definitely a virtue.

Bruch Poster 8X 10 copy

The surprises I encountered along my journey were many. First and foremost was the opportunity to talk to people in my family that I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time. I learned that shared knowledge is the best knowledge, coming at one project from many different angles allows you to see the full picture.

BAFT notes

Gathering photographs and identifying the people in them was key. It was important to show the photographs to many because while some relatives knew certain people in the photographs, other recognized different people. I actually made a key of some because I will never remember them all, and, sad as it is, others who know them will not always be here.

Robert Muenzner immediate family Muenzner Auerhamer key

Ultimately, I uncovered eight generations of our family, 83 descendants of my great grandparents on my dad’s maternal side and a span of 155 years from the oldest to the youngest. I also came up with other statistics like the most common birth month & day, the most common names, etc.

I learned that I am, in fact, related to Paul Revere. I learned that IF my great grandfather did have another family, I couldn’t find them (but I’ll continue to search). I also found out that my great grandmother is a half sister to her siblings (something that only few knew). I discovered this because her mother’s name on her birth certificate is different than the wife of my great-great grandfather, so this means he had an affair and conceived a child that would be raised by he and his wife OR he was married to two women at the same time. I also uncovered, or actually he found me via, a relative who lives with his family just a few towns away from me; previously, we didn’t know of each other. His father’s name is Fred Blizzard because he was born in a blizzard (another one of many fun facts I learned).


Taking the tree from computer format to paper was difficult enough, transferring it to something share-able and displayable took collaboration with my sister, the artist of the family. We were offered 3 sheets of lattice as a base with stands on the backs of them to erect them on a flat surface. My sister came up with the idea to make a six foot tree to attach to the lattice and paint for our canvas. Then we copied photos of each family member along with birth (death) dates and names on leaves we proceeded to cut out. We began at the top with my great grandparents and proceeded downward, hanging the leaves to the tree with curtain hooks, in delineating each of the offspring of Augusta and Christian.

tree 1 tree 2

Cover 2014 copy

reunion collage 2014

I also put together a basic tree in a booklet format. On one page, I included statistics and fun facts. Displayed at the center of the tree, it gave everyone at the reunion a good overview of the work that had been done. The tree itself was a good talking point for relatives to reconnect (or in some cases connect for the first time). In addition, a video was taken of the entire event with various interviews. Document. Document. Document.

REUNION PHOTO 9 2014 Bruch Film Grain

BAFT How to


Family Tree Templates


Genealogy 101


Reflection, NOT Resolution

New Year's resolution

I’m setting a new trend for myself for New Year’s day. Instead of establishing lofty goals that, often, I set too high for myself, I’ve decided to instead look upon New Year’s as a day of reflection rather than resolutions.

A cup of warm lemon water each morning (before eating or drinking anything else) is a wonderful thing. Not only does it balance out the liver and give your metabolism a boost, the daily dose of vitamin C has made me feel better.

Being forty-something isn’t as bad as I had originally anticipated, for it has helped me evolve into a woman who can, in fact, let “it” roll when it comes to stressors in my life that I can’t control. Take “#randomkid” (earlier post), for instance, as a teacher a decade ago, he would have sent me reeling; instead, I looked beyond his adolescent behavior and stood the course, which has led me to deal with “#latekid” (future post, to be sure!) in a much more calm, resolute fashion. This one doesn’t even ruffle my feathers!

Which leads me to another very valuable lesson that only age and experience has afforded me: not to take everything so personally. Instead of internalizing and jumping the gun, assuming all fingers point at me, I can do the opposite, now! This is a wonderful feat for myself; in fact, it’s one I’m very proud to have accomplished. (Kinda’ makes me wonder, now, where I’d be had I mastered that one twenty years ago– another future post, perhaps).

I spent most of the last five years feeling disillusioned about my profession– so many facets of it changing in directions I see as not being productive or positive. I have stood up on several occasions to make my opinions known. I’m not shy about standing up and speaking my mind. But I’m not sure what difference it’s made, if any. What I don’t like about my job, I’ve learned, is how entangled public education is with politics, money more specifically. Never before, have I felt it as oppressively as of late– a sign of the times, I suppose. I grappled with this negatively affecting my perspective on coming to work every day. I felt hopeless and helpless. I’m not sure how I turned the corner or which corner I turned, but I’ve learned to focus, not on what’s wrong with education, but instead on what my true priorities and capabilities are as a teacher. First and foremost, my responsibility (and my joy) is in the day to day contact I have with the kids. It’s in developing them as people (more so than any skill that I can impart); I seek to create critical/creative thinkers and confident self advocates. Reforms will come an go. I will agree with some and adamantly oppose others. But, through it all, I can always remain true to myself and my students; no one can change that.

After encountering my first health obstacle this year (and so it begins…), I realized I’m the kind of person who goes on the counterattack, something I didn’t really know about myself before. I’ve decided to look at this as an opportunity to put my health first, something I should have done a long time ago, and so I have. It’s a daily call to consciousness, something I’m grateful for.

We have three dogs, all labs, who are very much part of our family. The eldest, Bailey, 13 years old, is nearing the end of his life. We’re kind of lucky because he’s sort of had 9 lives. We’ve said goodbye to him twice, already, in fact, sure he wouldn’t make it through the night. The reflection is this: people deal with death differently. If it were solely my decision, I would have put him to sleep months ago. He struggles getting up, cries out in pain at times, has a hard time climbing up one step. I’m of the mindset that if one isn’t living a quality life, the right thing to do is to allow him/her to die with dignity. Unfortunately, this luxury is afforded to animals more so than people (but that’s for another post, too). My husband and two of my children are of a different mindset– I see it as them having a hard time letting go. My husband is looking for a decision to confront him– a choice that puts the choice out of his hands. But then he said something that I can respect and live with. He said, “I’m trying to keep him alive until Ryan (my eldest child who lives in Chicago) comes home, so he has the chance to say goodbye.” Everyone needs closure.

The little things really are big things. Having an impromptu breakfast with all of my children. Hearing the excitement in my first born’s voice when he gets a promotion at work. Watching my second born play hockey again. Seeing my third born’s eyes widen when she realizes the college that will make her happiest. Knowing my kids are all under one roof, asleep at night. Observing the rhythms of my children as they enjoy just being with one another. A cup of coffee in the morning. Quiet time to write. My graffiti wall and the memories it calls up. The scent of pumpkin in the fall. A family reunion. My dogs rushing to greet me. Laughing uncontrollably. The quiet in my head (and house) when the only sound I can hear is of my narrator speaking words through fingers pressing down letters on the keyboard of my writing universe. Listening to my favorite new song on repeat. Realizing the all the little things that keep propelling me from one day to the next, from one moment onward…

As with any marriage, my husband & I have had our share of highs and lows. Undoubtedly, the most difficult time has been in raising our teenage-young adult children because we often don’t see eye to eye. The differences in our own upbringing have shone through this time unlike any other in our parenting. It’s almost broken us, but I’ve come to realize, instead, it’s made us stronger which I believe speaks a lot to the core of our relationship. We could have given in, called it quits, but we have both stuck it out in the name of love for each other and our family. You know, 25 years ago, when I married my husband, I fantasized that we’d be together forever; it’s taken me 25 years to know. And, that, is a good feeling.

Selfishness and putting oneself first is not the same thing. When I was a kid, my parents used to call me selfish. It stung; it had a lasting impact on me such that I think I’ve gone to the other extreme to try to prove them wrong. And, now, I’ve come back to somewhere in the middle, to a place that I realize this is, after all, MY life. In large part, my friends are responsible for this epiphany. Their observations of me helped me to see myself clearly. And I have finally developed the courage to live my life for me and what makes me happy because, at the end of the day, if I’m not happy, I cannot be happy with anyone else in my life.

Being the best and being my best are two totally different things. I’ve always been uber-involved in many things; I don’t like to be idol. I like to take on a task and see it through to perfection (“Ah, there’s the rub”). At forty-nine, I finally understand that perfection does not exist. I can be okay with what is in my control. I can be okay with putting MY best efforts forth and I realize that, in life, as over-committed as some of us are, that something’s got to give. I no longer feel a failure at saying no or not living up to another person’s expectations of me. My own expectations matter most. At the end of the day, if I can say that I gave what I could give, I’m happy.

Thankfulness is the best gift one can give to oneself. I learned this last year during one of the lowest periods of my life. I performed a “Thirty days of Thankful” experiment with myself which has colored the way I see each and everyday. I am thankful for “just being here,” the words and platitude a very close and wise friend gave me. I am thankful for my family, for who they are and all that they mean to me. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with kids everyday and, hopefully, positively influence them and the course of their lives in some way. I am thankful for my friends, each fulfilling a different facet of my life. I am thankful for the ability to notice the little things as they happen, the experiences that become memories to cherish. I am thankful that each New Year is almost like a reset button to stop for a moment to reflect, in order to learn and move forward, a little wiser and more thankful than the year before.