Legacy Pearls

A long-time friend visited last weekend. She told how she took her inherited pearls for an appraisal. Upon opening their container, the precious pearls let loose; now unstrung, they tumbled down helter-skelter like falling leaves in a storm. Do you have any restringing projects in your legacy from your family tree?

All of us inherit certain legacies from our ancestors. They may be blessings and/or burdens. Some individuals inherit the blessing of a musical talent from a parent or grandparent. Others pick up pieces of ancestor legacies as burdensome trauma. Unsettling family stories often are not shared with children to “protect” them when they are young; it is only in later years that relatives or family friends might reveal tumultuous events in the family.

One example is Israeli-born musical composer Oteri Chaya Czernowin: “Growing up in Israel one is so imprinted with the identity of nationality and being a Jew…when I went with my father to a wedding, everybody said, ‘She looks just like your sister,’ who was murdered in the Holocaust. When you’re born with such a weight, it’s very natural that when you get to adolescence the last thing you want to hear about is nationality, origin, or anything connected to that. You just want to be a person, an ahistoric individual who believes in individuality…it took me a long time to reconnect and to assume the weight of my origin and nationality and get into a more aware dialog with it.”

The effects of traumatic stress can fall onto subsequent generations even when youth from these later generations are not exposed directly to any trauma. Psychiatrist Daniel Amen describes the transmission: “Through a process called epigenetics, you can inherit your ancestor’s fears, worries, or even prejudices without ever being aware of it. The [inheritance]…is written in your genetic code.” Some individuals experience strong reactions at the same age as a relative who experienced the original trauma.

Author Mark Wolynn (It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle) describes how a shared family tree has poignant inherited history. He describes a young man who awakened in the middle of a night just after his 19th birthday with physical feelings of freezing and shivering. He was unable to deal with his ensuing insomnia every night until he learned about a tragic family story. His mother revealed that his uncle, a person unknown to him, froze to death at age 19 when working on power lines in a storm in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The family never spoke the uncle’s name after the unfortunate death.

The holiday season may present you with the gift of being with relatives. Perhaps you can ask some questions about relatives that you never knew. You may string together some new understandings about yourself.    

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

143. Who is the storyteller in your family?

144. Have you ever thought what your life would be like if you had________________?

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. I think that I fall into the category of those who continually feel the past — and the many family members who reside therein — as a vital presence in my life: I can’t understand those who say to let the past go and just live in the present. As I get older, I’m more and more intrigued in the ways my ancestors lived their lives.


  2. My younger brother is the tender of the family tree. Nothing poignant there, as far as I know, so I’ll count my blessings that my ancestors appear to have been hard working, decent, average, law abiding folk. Great heritage to honor.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: