What is past, is prologue.--

William Shakespeare

THE APPLICATION for Peewee soccer demanded a birth certificate to prove that Ben was born in 1982.

"You'd think," I snarled, rummaging through drawer after disorganized document drawer, "they could tell by looking at Ben that he isn't 19 years old."

Strangely enough, though, that irritating two-day search unearthed not only directions to the blender we threw out the same year Ben was born along with piles of long-lost macaroni artwork. We also re-discovered a cache of photographs of former generations, which had been ignored while we were in the process of creating the new generation. The find resulted in a brief, but rewarding odyssey through our family orchard.

"Who is this?" asked Ben, pointing to a little old man in a battered hat, stroking a tortoise-colored cat.

"That's your Great Granddad," I said, slightly surprised to find that Ben didn't recognize him.

"He looks kind of sloppy," said Ben, doubtfully. "Was he a bum?"

"He was kind of sloppy after he retired," I admitted. "He had been a dean at the University of Michigan."

"What's a dean?"

"Like a principal."

"Gross," said Adam, 8.

"Well, your Great Grandma on Daddy's side, was a principal. Here's a picture of her."

"Since she was a principal and he was a principal, were they married to each other?" asked Adam, using second-grade logic.

I explained that they were from two different branches of the family tree, that Great Granddad's name was Walter and that he was one of their four great grandfathers. One had been a minister, another, a dressmaker. Their fathers had included a lawyer, cigar-store owner and a general-store owner, who lived above his shop.

"Weren't any of them cowboys or soldiers?" asked Adam.

I thought for a second.

"See this granddad with the cat? The one who was a dean? He was an engineer."

"You mean he drove the trains out west?"

I smiled noncommittally. Maybe part of the fun of a family tree is branching out from the truth.

We searched through the old pictures until he had found snapshots of at least two generations back. Then we laid them out in a design to show how the generations from my husband's family and mine are parallel.

Reconstructing the family tree offered an opportunity to discuss history, and legacy.

Why is Ben sensitive to color combinations when one parent is color-blind and the other appears to have decorated her home in the style of Lorton Prison? Because there are artistic twigs on some of the higher branches.

How did Adam get a "natural" baseball swing when his mother can barely find enough coordination to change the bunkbeds? Two generations back, we found a softball pitching ace.

The family tree opened the door to lots of subjects. It let our kids see where my brother, their Uncle Dave, still belongs, although he died last year. It had a kind of soothing effect, as though pasting a picture on a piece of cardboard proved that those who have died have not been lopped off the tree, but remain for each new generation to enjoy.

They even like to hear the names.

The boys hooted at "Hugo," "George," "Dudley" and "Irma." But Emily, 3, had a different response. "I want to see that picture again. The one of Aunt Emily."

Reconstructing the family tree can take an afternoon, a weekend or a lifetime.

Margaret Redmond, executive director of the National Genealogical Society based in Arlington, says once you start looking into your heritage it can become addictive.

"Everybody wants to know where they came from," she said. The purpose of the society, the only one of its kind with a national membership, is to help people research their own family histories. "We encourage people to do it right. Get the dates right and interview older family members with tape recorders, then write the memories adding color so that family members can enjoy it a hundred years from now."

Ms. Redmond has traced one branch of her own family back to the 1500s.

The Society has a pamphlet titled "Suggestions for Researching History," which can be obtained by sending a stamped self- addressed envelope to the Society at 4527 17th Street N., Arlington, VA 22207. The group also publishes a booklet titled "Instructions for Beginners in Genealogy," which sells for $8 and gives a step-by-step procedure for tracking down family history. The genealogical society has its own library, and non-members may use it for a small charge.

Some guidebooks encourage the researcher to uncover all cultural and social minutiae from times past. In a bookstore I found "Recording Your Family History," by William Fletcher, (Dodd, Mead & Co. 1986). It details hundreds of questions to ask older relatives including: What hairstyle did you wear in 1942? What bedtime stories did your mother tell you? Tell me about the man you didn't marry.

Setting up the family tree was, for us, a light exercise for a winter's afternoon, but it is one method of helping children understand their link in the continuous chain of humanity.

GROWING THE TREE

To make a family tree for young children, you can use a piece of posterboard or oaktag (11 by 18 inches), a pencil, a ruler, black, red, green and brown felt tip markers and white glue.

In the center of the page, draw a picture of a tree. Color in trunk, branches and leaves with markers. Above the drawing, print the words, "Family Tree" and underneath it, paste a photograph of the child or children in the immediate family.

On either side of the children, draw a box, 2 inches by 2 inches, in which you record memories of their childhoods. Then, leave space for picture of mother and dad.

Above those boxes, there should be room for four more boxes on either side of the tree. Those spaces can include memories about both sets of grandparents and great grandparents (or any relatives you choose). Above those boxes, there is room for photographs (if you use moderately sized ones.)

The whole project can be bordered with stars or flowers or squiggly lines in bright marker colors. Be sure to note the date on the family tree.

For those who get really excited about the project, there are genealogy workshops at the National Archives (for schedule call 523-3347), and classes are offered periodically at the Smithsonian and through county public school adult education programs. At the moment classes are offered through Montgomery County Adult Education, 942-8304, and Fairfax County Adult and Community Education, 893-1090.

Ann Yost last wrote for Weekend about making valentines.