Why You Need to Know Your Family Tree

Doesn’t family drive you bonkers this time of year?

Family feuds, bad blood, and pointless vendettas pop up like flames crackling at the fireplace.

You love your family on one level, yet you are ready to strangle them with your bare hands. But do you really know your family story? Does the thought of delving deep into your family history seem like the last thing you want to do?

Hang on there.

In this holiday season, I want you to stop and think about your family history and the importance of knowing your family. The reasons for exploring your roots can have consequences not only for your health, but in family tales for generations to come.

  1. Biology. I think this is probably the most obvious one, but knowing your family’s health history is critical. Does heart disease run more in your family? Or cancer? Learning what factors you can control can help ensure a longer and happier life.
  2. Learn the family lore. My great-great-uncle played professional baseball in the 1910s. How badass is that? My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother was hung as a witch in Salem in 1692. Not badass, but pretty astonishing. And my great-great grandmother actually gave birth to my great-grandfather crossing the Atlantic. That is the epitome of badass—having a baby while emigrating to another country. You’ll never know what cool relatives you have until you dig into your family history and learn about the black sheep or the renegade in your family.
  3. See your ancestors as more than strangers black-and-white photos. Here is a photo of my maternal grandfather, probably taken in the late 1930s:


What a badass! I can’t even begin to tell you what a sweet, gentle, refined gentleman he was. But here he is in a motherloving black leather jacket and awesome sunglasses. Something is about to go down. Do I know why he dressed like this? Not a clue. I only knew his story from the last 22 years of his life. What I wouldn’t give to know the first 64…

  1. Appreciate your family while they are still here. This goes a lot without saying. But I absorb my parents’ stories like a sponge. Even if I only have a vague idea of which Cousin Stach my father is talking about, that makes me love Dad and his stories all the more. You can’t make this up. You come from an awesome family, and you have so much to learn from the older generation in your family. You just need the wisdom to open up your ears.
  2. Take pride in something bigger than yourself. My family history is a rich tapestry that goes as far west as Ireland and as far east as Poland. I am proud that the blood of farmers, butchers, preachers, clerks, accountants, and bus drivers runs in my veins. There is nothing to connect poor Polish farm stock to genteel English landowners but my parents marrying and having kids. I have dozens of stories about people who I am descended from, and I cherish every anecdote.
  3. Make a connection with places you’ve never visited. I’ve been to Ireland, England, and Germany. I felt an almost instinctual connection with those places I can’t explain. Is it because that is where my family is from? Yeah, probably! I’ve never been to Poland. Or Massachusetts. Or Ellis Island. Yet the ghosts of my ancestors touch all these places, and a part of me does, too.
  4. Add to the narrative. As a writer, blogger, and activist, I have a career no one in my family has ever had. I am very proud to add to my family history, even though I don’t have any children of my own. I may not be a witch or a badass to cross an ocean while nine months pregnant, but I am proud of my contributions to the Kontor clan. My personal story is woven in with that of my ancestors, and I love the fact I have been able to make my own contribution.

Even though the holidays can sorely test anyone’s patience with your family, take a few minutes to think about different family stories that have been passed down to you. How does that make you a stronger person? How does it make you prouder? How do your ancestors remind you of the struggles they have overcome, and how it parallels with your life right now?

What is the most important accomplishment you know about from your family tree? Comment below!

The Power of My Family in My Life

It’s Father’s Day.

Cue up the dad jokes!

Why did the Clydesdale give the pony a glass of water? Because he was a little horse!


Now that I got that out of the way, family is foremost on my mind today, so I want to share with you some of the most powerful moments I have shared with my family—my parents, two sisters, and two brothers—where they have let me know everything is all right and, when the chips are down, they are the rock I stand on.

That time I totaled a car and Mom let me sleep in bed with her. When I was 18, I got into a car accident (my fault) that totaled the other driver’s car. My father was out of town and I was freaking out how mad he would be. My mom told me, over, and over, things would be OK. Being an anxious person, I couldn’t get it into my head. So Mom did something I hadn’t done in years—she let me sleep in her bed, let me cry out my fears, and somehow managed to assure me things would work out. And they did.

That time I was hospitalized in France and my parents were right there. I was 23 and got appendicitis in Paris. My appendix ruptured and I got a blood infection. By the grace of God my parents were already there on a scheduled vacation. Well, their vacay was cut short as they spent the next 10 days with me as I struggled to get my health back. Even though they don’t speak French and didn’t really know what was going on, I never would’ve made it out of their with their comfort and care.

That time my siblings helped me furnish an apartment after I left the convent. After I left the convent, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment near where I worked. I had used furniture I managed to cobble together from different places, but I needed sheets, pots, pans, cleaning supplies, etc. That’s where my sibs came in. They pooled their resources to buy me a card to cheer me up and a Target gift card so I could buy the basic necessities. They didn’t have to do that, but it was certainly the most thoughtful gesture. I still have the card and it makes me smile every time I read it.

That time I had a nervous breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Long story short, I was living in another state and I had myself committed to a mental hospital for suicidal ideation. My parents dropped everything to come take care of my cat, get me out of the hospital, and stayed with me until I was well enough to look after myself. That was a very dark time in my life, and it was only my family looking out for me that got me through that very scary time.

That time I lost my job and practically moved in with my folks. I lost my job last summer, and my family saved me from being home alone, freaking out about the future. My sisters invited me over to watch TV to take my mind off things. My brothers took me to movies to cheer me up. I went over to dinner at my parents’ place five days a week. During all that time, they let me laugh, cry, share my frustrations, and were the first to celebrate with me when I got the job. They helped me more than they will ever know, nor will they ever know the depth of my gratitude.

So today, stop and think about your family—biological, adopted, friends, pets, or anyone else close to your heart. Remember how they helped you in the rough spots. And cherish the time you spend with them.

How has your family impacted your life for the better? Comment below!

How to Handle a Family Argument

Picture it…your family gathered around the Christmas dinner table. There’s a fire roaring in the fireplace, turkey is on the table, presents are under the tree, Christmas carols are cheerfully on in the background…

And a heated family argument erupts at the table, hotter than anything in the fireplace.

This scene will probably play itself out in, sadly, countless American homes this holiday season. If it’s about politics, money, or someone’s significant other, it takes very little to send some people over the edge.

This blog post is to give you some advice if you find yourself trapped in one of these unfortunate scenarios, what you can do to bring things down a notch, or, at the very least, preserve your sanity.

  1. Set some boundaries. If at all humanly possible, try to head any arguments off at the pass. When you extend or accept invitations, make it very clear you will only do so if people are on their best behavior and will not fight during the festivities.
  1. Not your monkeys, not your circus. One way of preserving your sanity is to just completely stay out of it. If the argument doesn’t involve you in the least, staying silent can be a wise option.
  1. Do no harm. It is extremely important to remember that you can only control yourself, not other people. You can control what you say, but not how other people will react. If you have something valuable to add, by all means do so. But jump in only if you think it is wise to do so. If you are arguing just to argue, you are throwing gasoline on a pile of oily rags
  1. Be the diffuser. OK, so maybe you’re not a trained hostage negotiator, but what can you do to improve the situation? Can you sneakily change the subject? Can you get one of the fighting parties out of the room to help you with dessert or outside for a bit of air? Anything you can do to restore some modicum of peace will be appreciated by nearly everyone present.
  1. Stay on topic. If you are bold enough to join the fracas, that is your choice. But in any argument, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by bringing up things that happened five or ten years ago. If you are questioning your sister’s taste in boyfriends, talking about her junior high crush is really not going to be much help to you.
  1. Shut people down, right then and there. Especially if you are the hostess (or even if you’re not), you are entitled to enjoy a drama-free holiday. There is nothing wrong with reminding people it is Christmas, and FFS, can you all act like grown-ass adults for a change?!
  1. Just leave. Assuming you came on your own power, when all else fails, just leave. Out of the room or out of the house. Sometimes distancing yourself from the drama is the best thing you can do for your sanity. Allow yourself to cool down.
  1. Be gracious afterwards. If you said something to hurt someone’s feelings, apologize. Even if you know you were right, try to make up with your family. The holidays only come once a year, and you are so much stronger and better than a petty little argument.

I wish you the very happiest holiday season and hope you don’t need to use any of these. The best offense is always a good defense, so try to set some boundaries before you go anywhere for Christmas Eve/Christmas dinner.

What is the stupidest thing your family has ever argued about? Comment below!

10 Ways to Grieve When You Have to Do It Alone


Grief is the price we pay for love.—Queen Elizabeth II

You get a phone call or open an email and you finally get the news you’ve been dreading.

Someone you love has passed away.

There are few things in life that are as profoundly sad or difficult as losing a loved one, be it a friend or family member. Whether it was after a lengthy illness or completely unexpected, it can be enough to knock the wind out of you. You can literally feel your heart break. You wonder whether you’ll ever be happy again.

Facing grief is difficult even if you have people to lean on. But living alone, single women have a difficult time of it. Here are some things to remember when facing the death of a loved one. They won’t make the heartache go away, but they will help anchor your emotions and permit you to grieve at your own pace:

  1. Allow yourself to lean in to your emotions. You might be like me and cry at the drop of the hat. Or you may be stoic when you first hear the news. Whatever you are feeling, the most important thing to remember is that you are entitled to your emotions.
  1. Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Western culture has a warped, awkward view of death. We think people should “snap out of it” after a week or two and then carry on with a stiff upper lip. That is quite possibly the worst advice you can give anyone who’s mourning. Tune out all that noise.
  1. Be gentle with yourself. As I mentioned, I’ve been known to cry anywhere and everywhere. Bus stops, grocery shopping, at my desk, coffee shops—I can’t help it. That’s how I deal with it. And that’s OK. Anger, depression, tears…don’t apologize for how you feel and don’t beat yourself up for having those feelings. It shows you are vibrant, caring, and human because you can express what that person meant to you. Even if it means slobbery, messy tears and tons of wadded-up tissues.
  1. Remember grief has no timetable. Every person is irreplaceable and there will never be anyone like the one you lost. You may not feel your loss until days, weeks, or even months after the funeral. And that’s fine. There is no schedule to grieving, and that should never be forgotten.
  1. Reach out to your support network—even if they don’t know who passed away. People who truly love you will let you cry on the phone, over Skype, or in person. Be it your mom, your best friend, your counselor, or a pastor—let yourself be vulnerable and talk about your grief.
  1. Find solace in nature. I am about as far from an outdoorsy person as you can get. But going for walks or even sitting on the porch, watching a sunset help me center me and allow my thoughts to wander. I can pause and remember the beauty in the world, even if it’s just for a couple minutes.
  1. Be there for others who mourn the loss. I absolutely hate wakes and funerals. There, I said it. But I know it’s not all about me. I draw a lot of comfort in seeing friends and family at these services. It is also a sign of respect to the person’s family that you are enough to come. Don’t run away from wakes/funerals, even if you hate them as much as I do.
  1. Think about what your loved one wants for you. The timing of this is probably more after the funeral. But if you have a special connection with the deceased, you know they want you to be happy. Remember this when you reach for your eighth box of tissue or feel like you will never smile again. They would want you to smile. And eventually laugh. It may take time, but you know they want the very best for you.
  1. Do something to honor your loved one’s memory. Develop a good habit or ditch an old one. Do something you’ve always wanted to but never had the courage to. Just do something different to remember. And honor your loved one when you actually do it.
  1. Remember the ties that bind. I see lots of Facebook messages of “Praying for you…let us know if you need anything,” after someone passes away. Follow through when you say those words, and not just with a casserole or a card. If you are in a position to do so, call, visit, or email the family of the person who died. They will be in great need of comfort in the weeks, months, and years afterwards. Loneliness is a crippling emotion, and if you can do something to alleviate it, you are honoring the departed.

Death is never easy to talk about. But by allowing yourself the time and space to grieve, honoring your loved one’s memory, and by being there for others, you are giving yourself the tools you need to cope with your grief. And in your sadness and heartache, you will find comfort and strength in yourself and in others.

What has brought you the most comfort when you’ve grieved? Comment below!

What to Do When You Are Left Out of the Conversation: 11 Convo Changers

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Picture it: You’re sitting at a family function, the lunch table at work, or an evening out with the girls. You’re the only childless woman at the table, and the conversation centers around kids: poopy diapers, soccer practice, potty training, trips to grandma’s house.

And these conversations last a long time. And you really don’t have anything to contribute (what do I know about potty training? Exactly nothing!). So before long someone asks the Captain Obvious question:

“Why are you so quiet?”

Instead of seething in silence, what can you do to change the topic? What can you discuss where you can actually add to the conversation? I have a list of conversation changers for you so that the parents don’t monopolize the whole conversation and you feel resentful.

I want to frame this list by saying please let people talk about their kids. Obviously kids are the most important thing in peoples’ lives, and they have the right to talk about what makes them happy. But when you are starting to feel completely excluded, you need to find a lull in when you can:

  1. The weather. Yes, this is the most unoriginal topic imaginable. But it is definitely something every person can relate to!
  1. Politics. Use with caution, especially if you know your opinion is in the minority. Or throw Donald Trump’s name into the convo and watch sparks fly
  1. Current events. This is where it pays to stay on top of what’s happening in the world. From local tax hikes to national news, chances are there’s a touchstone in there for the group!
  1. Sports.This one is a little trickier. I live in a state where we live and die by college football, and I am not a sports fan. At all. But I know just enough to chat about the previous weekend’s games or be conversant in the NCAA tournament.
  1. Food. Especially helpful around the lunch table. From asking what someone’s eating to swapping recipes, food bonds us together like few things do.
  1. Clothes. Complimenting what someone is wearing and/or asking where they got it is an excellent way to completely change topics.
  1. TV or movies. Now that I am in full post-Downton Abbey withdrawal, we’ve had some lively discussions at lunch about how to fill the void. I rarely see movies in theatres, so I like it when my co-workers review them for me.
  1. Celebrity gossip. Whether Miley Cyrus did something she’ll be embarrassed about when she’s older or Adam Sandler had another box office bomb, there never seems to be a shortage of topics here.
  1. Asking for advice. I have found that casually mentioning you have a problem and needing advice is something others love to help you with. From mechanic recommendations to discussing my cat’s health, I’ve found people are very willing to share their expertise.
  1. Books or magazines. I talk about this less, but sometimes I read a book or article that is so good, I can’t *not* share it.
  1. Social media. Did you see a great joke or meme on Facebook? A funny YouTube video? Those are always fun ways to steer the conversation.

You don’t have to be doomed to being left out of every conversation that goes on (and on and on) about kids. At an appropriate lull in the conversation, I have given you 11 topics to steer the conversation to more neutral ground. It may take some practice at first, but I promise you it is worth the try!

What do you do when the topic of conversation is something you can’t join in on? Comment below!