Do you know anything about your family's past, about your ancestors on both sides? Do you have any ideas about where some of your quirkiness comes from? Recently, there have been stories in the press about John Kerry's Jewish roots, facts that presumably the secretary of state never knew. Most of us wonder, from time to time, “Where did we come from? What propelled the family here? What secrets don't we know?” Sites such as are extremely popular. But the personal stories from the older generations are what sing to us, and teach us. Not only family history but also history about the lives and times of others around them.

People love to talk about themselves and their past. Even recluses and people who claim to be private can open up like clams if you ask the right questions. And once they start, they'll just keep rolling.

My grandfather was in the hospital several times in his later years. He lived until his early nineties, a tough immigrant, full of grit his entire life.

Asking him about his past made him forget any pain, forget that he was in a hospital room. He came to this country in 1893, and he told me, “The biggest difference between Europe and America, and it amazed me when it first happened, is that in America, when you got in a fight, the other guy always let you up.” He talked to me often about his early days in America.

“As a greenhorn kid,” he said, “full of wonder, I understood fast that you had to stick up for ...

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