Learn about your family

The Questions We Forget to Ask Our Parents

I became my family historian. Here’s what I’ve learned about reclaiming our past.

Sean Kernan
6 min readFeb 22, 2024

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Uncle Jeff, Mamma Jan, me, Grandpa Marvin, Grandma Vivian. Taken in Birmingham, Alabama.

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He was a mysterious figure who died when I was four and whose name was often mentioned. My sole memory is a hazy one of him giving me popsicles on my birthday, shortly before he died of a mysterious illness.

I yearned to construct some type of mental image of him, an idea of the life he lived, perhaps to recover a sense of self that felt missing. I began asking questions: What was his demeanor? What did he do? What did he sound like? I tried to envision myself, looking out through his eyes in a very different world, with him not knowing his grandson was searching through time for his essence, trying to reclaim something he couldn’t yet define — but soon would.

From there I realized, I knew so little about my family’s history, even in the immediate generations before mine. And so I began an incredibly rewarding journey of learning — one that more of you should consider. Why? Because surprisingly few people know much about their family history. Per a 2021 study, one third of Americans can’t even name all four of their grandparents.

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Sean Kernan

Writer and writing instructor. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.