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Family history -- a ready source of heroes, heroines for children

Every family has heroes. Today, when so many are scrambling to find roots, you can share with your children the heroes and heroines of your family. You may be surprised at the stories you turn up of bravery and courage - sometimes in the most unexpected areas.

My first attempt at this sharing was by slipping a postcard onto a small easel on my desk. Not long afterward nine-year-old Bruce leaned his elbows on the desk and looked at the card.

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''Hey! There's a woman riding a horse!'' he exclaimed. I could see excitement in his eyes, envisioning the horse he kept asking us to buy.

I quit my typing. ''She's not riding for pleasure.''

''What for then?''

''She's going to a new home.''

Bruce picked up the card. ''In all that snow?''

''In all that snow,'' I repeated. ''It was l796, almost 200 years ago.''

''So, those guys on foot out in front are opening a trail, huh?'' He noticed something else. ''Hey, every one of those guys has a gun.''

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''Yes. For a special purpose.''

''Like the Pilgrims? For food? For protection?''

''Good reasoning,'' I told him. ''Only those aren't Pilgrims; they're pioneers. The drawing on the card shows what probably happened when pioneers traveled the Wilderness Road across the Cumberland Gap, a gap they'd found would get them through the Allegheny Mountains.

''That woman on the horse could have been your great-great-great-great grandmother. And that man walking and guiding two heavily loaded pack horses could have been your grandfather-with-four-greats. What the postcard doesn't show is that, when these grandparents of yours made their way in the middle of winter through the Gap while moving from North Carolina to Kentucky, they had along their three little children, all under five.''

''Wow!'' Bruce said. ''That must have been quite a trip.''

He wandered away then, but I hoped I had sown a seed of curiosity about family history in my effort to interest our three children in their ancestors and the way they faced life courageously.

Bruce was also thrilled we had a Revolutionary War soldier in the family. ''What was his name?'' Edward Evans. ''How old was he when he served?'' Seventeen. That young? ''What battles was he in?'' Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge. ''We had Valley Forge in school. Wow! That awful winter!''

Perhaps you don't have a Revolutionary soldier in your past. Or ancestors who left a country because of religion. Or you don't know what you have because you aren't interested in genealogy.

Never mind. There are other heroes. Our second-grader, Sara, found another example in the heavy old family Bible with its embossed cover and gold clasp. Opening it for her to the gold-bordered family record pages, I waited while she tried to use her new reading skills on the spidery, fading handwriting. Then I described for her my own great-grandmother, whose Bible it had been and whom I knew during her last years when she lived in our home. She is an early heroine of mine. Widowed with two small children to support, she sold aluminum lamps door to door in an era before it was stylish or common for women to work.

There's some advantage in seeking heroes and heroines among family members you have known personally. You can flesh them out and easily make them come alive as persevering human beings in the face of difficulty.

What stories are there in your immediate past? Were your parents or grandparents affected by the depression of the 1930s? What about World War II? Any soldiers? But also how was life at home during the war, with rationing and rehearsing blackouts (just in case)?

This is not to say we pore over family history day in and day out in our home. It catches children's interest better when interspersed in everyday life, even in random conversation when the proper subject comes up.

Besides the history and the excitement it produces, there is also an important, intangible byproduct. An appreciation of family heroes can give children a sense of courage, as they see how others met with crises in their lives, refused to give up, and kept their faith in the future.

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