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Saturday, 01 January 2000

The Treasure Chest: Unlocking The Door To Your Ancestor's Home

Written by  Shari Davis

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Where did your ancestors live? Whether a city apartment, a country cabin, a stone house in a village -- every home is full of stories connecting you to your past!

In this project we'll show you how to discover these stories by recreating an ancestor's house.

Some years ago my husband sat with his father and asked him to describe his grandfather's house in Poland. In response, his fathwer sketched the one room house with mud walls and a roof of straw. They spoke about the texture of his world, surrounded by unpaved earth, straw and stone. A fruit picker by trade, an avid reader and learned man, the two sons he raised in this simple house became influential educators and published writers.

Collecting family stories enables children (and their parents) to experience the continuum between past and present and understand their place in the chain of their family history.

Parkinson's Disease has now robbed my father-in-law of his memory and his ability to communicate. Had my husband waited to question his father about his early years, he would have been out of luck. Instead, he was able to share these stories with our children. Through this simple act of dialogue, the memories spanned five generations!

Folklorist Mary Hufford has commented that "old people need to leave impressions and young people need to be impressed." Collecting family stories enable children (and their parents) to experience the continuum between past and present and understand their place in the chain of their family history. Identifying even one older relative who can share details of the "way it was" provides an invaluable perspective to children and connects them to something larger than themselves.

Step One: Choosing the Ancestor to Focus On
Researching your family history and collecting memorable stories is an extensive process. In this project you'll focus on one intriguing aspect of your family history: the home one ancestor lived in.

Consider who in your family might have resources. A few preliminary phone calls to older relatives can help determine who has information, memories and possibly photos and give you a sense of direction. You can try to go back in history as far as you can, or you can go with the richest available memories, such as a vivid description of your grandparent's house, which your children never saw.

Step Two: Collecting the Stories
Once you choose an ancestor your goal is to discover everything you can about his or her home.

Locate photographs or have someone draw a picture of the house. Collecting descriptions and memories are most important. Since you'll be making a model of the house, you need to get as detailed description as possible. We encourage you to write up your own list of questions, but here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Who lived in this house? (Full name of parents, children, relatives)
  • Where was the house? (Town, state, country)
  • Describe in detail what the house/apartment looked like. (What materials were the walls made of? How many floors? What did the roof look like?
  • How big was it? What kind of doors, widows, gate, fence did it have? What colors were used on the house?).
  • What was in front or around the house? (Garden, trees, shops, chicken coop, workshop, garage etc.)
  • Was it in the city or country? Were there other houses nearby? What was the neighborhood like?
  • Describe the interior of the house. (How many rooms? Colors of walls? Kind of floor? Type of furniture?)
  • What was the most important room in the house?
  • What was the "personality" of the house? (warm, cozy, formal, cluttered, orderly, etc.)
  • Do you recall any special objects in the house?
  • Do you remember sounds and smells in the house?
  • What was daily life like in this house?
  • Do you have stories about any interesting/memorable events that took place in the house?

Step Three: Recreate the House
As every house will be different I am going to make general suggestions for construction. Feel free to improvise.

In the houses we created, the kids wrote about the house directly on the walls, roof or base.

Walls and base: Use foam core, cardboard or balsa wood. Work together to plan the size of the walls. Measure and cut the board with mat knife or scissors. Use white tape, cloth tape, masking tape or other heavy duty tape to connect the walls. Position the house on a base of foam core or cardboard and tape it to the base (which should be considerably larger than the floor of the house.)

Wall surface: The walls can be painted with a thin coat of acrylic paint. (Wear a smock - it stains!) Stucco or bricks can be simulated by adding a small amount of sand to the paint. Bricks or wood can be recreated by painting the walls to look like these materials.

Roof: Use foam core or cardboard to form the shape of the roof. (Connect the roof to the walls using tape before painting.) Consider gluing on additional materials to replicate the actual roof: straw, cardboard cut in strips and painted to simulate wooden planks or cut in rounded pieces and layered to simulate roof tile.

Windows and doors, gates and other details: Use your imagination and available materials - shiny paper, pieces cut out of plastic containers and colored with markers, small scraps of wood or metal, etc. Consider drawing scenes in the windows, as if you were looking into the house.

Floor Plan: If desired you can also make a personalized floor plan to accompany the house. Draw a map of the inside of the house -- like a blueprint. In each room draw some of the furniture and objects which were significant. Use words and arrows to label them. Write quotes and snippets of memories within each room.

Write up your interview notes and display the completed project in a prominent place. When relatives come to visit the house will serve as touchstone for generating additional family stories.

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Last modified on Sunday, 15 May 2011 15:15
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Shari Davis

Shari Davis

Shari Davis has developed multi-cultural art programs, exhibits and educational resources that explore family and community history and cultural identity. As co-founder of Creative Ways she has brought these programs to dozens of schools and museums. She has coordinated family education programs at numerous museums and has expertise in intergenerational learning. She is co-author of the book Nourishing the Heart: A Guide to Intergenerational Art Programs in the Schools.

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