Showing posts with label #familyhistory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #familyhistory. Show all posts

Friday, April 20, 2018

Do the "Write" Thing for Genealogy, Part 3: Find the Drama

When you think about writing your family's history, look for the drama that may be below the surface (or in plain sight).

Remember: You know more than you think you know! Gather your Census data, vital records, Bible entries, photo albums, news clippings, and whatever else pertains to the person or people in the story you want to tell.

Jot notes about your memories and ask relatives what they remember about a particular ancestor or couple, a family occasion or situation, or a special photo (wedding portrait, for instance).

All of this will help you identify key points and people in your family's history, and uncover the drama that you can play up in your narrative.

If you're lucky enough to have letters, diaries, or interviews, go through and select quotes that add color and personality to your ancestors and reflect the drama in their lives.

Above, a quote from my late father-in-law, Edgar J. Wood, who said this 30+ years ago when my husband interviewed him about his earlier life and his love of playing the piano. The quote hints at the conflict between Ed and his father. It also explains why Ed had to play in so many jazz bands to make money for tuition, room, and board at Tufts, where he was in college during the 1920s.

The conflict came to a boiling point when Ed's mother, Mary Slatter Wood, died unexpectedly near the end of Ed's senior year. After Ed returned home for the funeral, he never lived at home again. He left college a few weeks later, not able to pass a language course needed for graduation. Then he moved to New York City and tried to make a living through his music. More drama!

What dramatic moments or conflicts are in your family's past? Look for them and use them to "hook" your readers.

This is an excerpt from my latest genealogy presentation, "Do the 'Write' Thing for Genealogy."

Thursday, March 29, 2018

History Gets Personal in Family History

Everyone's family history is influenced by (and can influence) the course of history. That's what makes history so personal in our family's history.

I'm struck by this again and again as I transcribe letters written by Farkas cousins to the family tree association during WWII. These cousins were in the service (some in the US Army, some in Army Air Corps, some in Navy, some in WAC) and their letters home are filled with observations that bring history alive and illuminate how the war experiences affected them personally. The letters also reveal personality and, often, a dry sense of humor.

Above, the letterhead from a cousin's letter written in January, 1943. Notice the words running along the ribbon at bottom of the image--"Prepare for Combat."

Cousin G enlisted to fly but he couldn't land the way the Army Air Force wanted, he wrote home in a 1942 letter. At that point, he chose to train as a navigator/bombardier.

In this 1943 letter, written from an Army Air Field in Monroe, LA, cousin G is "waiting around for shipment to Advanced [training] which will be in Coral Gables, Florida." He mentions that the school is run by Pan-American (Airways) and he has to satisfy a tougher standard. Why does he care which school he attends?
"The main reason I decided upon the Gables was that most of the navigation is over water and from what I hear that is pretty important when you have to pick an island out of the whole Pacific."
Cousin G understands that he has a role to play in history and takes it seriously, even when his letters make the family smile. His role in history affects his family history too, and I'm proud to document what he wrote to the family during these critical years. Plus I'm learning more about historical details as I add explanatory endnotes to the letters, ensuring that future generations will get the full picture of our family's contributions to and experiences in World War II.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The "Write" Way to Write Family History

Thinking about writing your family's history? Here are the two most important words to remember: Start writing.

That's the "write" thing to do.

Maybe you feel you're not a writer or you haven't done enough research or you need more details or photos. Please keep in mind that as the keeper of the family history, you know more than your relatives. And your relatives and heirs don't expect Shakespeare--they will be delighted just to find out who their ancestors were!

Doing the "write" thing is, in fact, an excellent way to identify gaps in research and missing leaves on the tree. If something is wrong or incomplete (incorrect spelling, inaccurate dates, missing details), you can always fix it later. Really.

Case in point: In 2012, I printed a small photo book about my parents' wedding, which united the Burk and Schwartz families. The main purpose was to reprint the many family photos with captions, for the sake of future generations. Cousins helped me identify nearly everyone in every photo. But there were some "unknowns" and I simply called them that in the captions (see above). Better done than perfect. 

Fast-forward to 2017, when I smashed a brick wall and found second cousins who--wonder of wonders!--are descendants of the "unidentified cousins" in the photos. Needless to say, I immediately hand-wrote the new names into my printed photo book. Remember, the goal is to share family history with future generations, not to have an immaculate book. Earlier this year, when I saw a big sale, I reprinted the original photo book with corrections and additions.

So go ahead and do the "write" thing. Some ideas to get you in the "write" mood:
  • Pick a person or a surname or an occasion, spread out your research, and jot notes you can then flesh out into sentences and paragraphs. I wrote about one set of grandparents at a time, since their lives were intertwined, but I had a separate page or two about birth/early childhood of each individual.
  • Pick a photo and list the people in it. Then write a bit about each person and the relationships between some or all. Include what you know about where and when, or other details to "set the scene" for descendants who never knew these people. I found some photos so evocative that the words poured out almost faster than I could type.
  • Ask your audience (children or nieces/nephews or any other readers) who or what they'd like to know about. My family asked for a booklet about Mom and her twin sister. I'm making notes already. My sis-in-law wants a book about her parents. I'm scanning photos in preparation.
Our ancestors had real lives, personalities, hopes, problems. It's up to us, the genealogists of our generation, to get the next generation interested in tales of the past and keep alive the memory of people no longer with us.

You don't have to start at the beginning as you write. Sometimes the best way to get yourself going is to begin with something dramatic or humorous or characteristic of the person. My blog posts often serve as a rough draft of a family history booklet.

There's no one "write" way to write family history. You can write one page about one person, or a pamphlet about a couple, or a book about a family. You might decide to tell the stories in photos with captions, rather than using a lot of text. The important thing, as I said at the beginning, is to start writing. Enjoy the journey, and your family will enjoy what you write.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Chronicling the Ups AND the Downs in Family History

Hani Simonowitz Schwartz, mother of my grandpa, Tivador "Teddy" Schwartz
After reading this article from Time, about why adults shouldn't shield children from sadness, I decided to write about why family historians owe it to future generations to document both the ups and downs of the past.

Of course we love to trumpet the many success stories (like hubby's great uncles, the famous bandmaster Slatter brothers in Canada). And it's fun to tell younger relatives about the family traditions that we ourselves remember so fondly (like singing the Farkas Family Tree anthem at family meetings when I was a tot).

But every family also has sorrow, struggles, and losses in its history. We may have witnessed grief following a loved one's death or we may have learned about sad or despicable family events from relatives or newspaper articles or other sources.

As genealogists, we owe it to our descendants and relatives to honestly chronicle the lives of our ancestors, both good and bad. It's vital to show younger relatives what formed our family, let them begin to learn about the range of life experiences, and reassure them of the shared strength of our family.

Research shows that children actually benefit from understanding the difficulties faced by ancestors and relatives--and come to believe they can overcome obstacles themselves. Stories are a safe way to begin the learning process, portray ancestors as real people with real lives, and put the past into context for younger folks.

I've written about my husband's great-grandma Mary Shehen Slatter (1837-1889), and her truly heartbreaking tale of being confined in two notorious insane asylums due to a diagnosis of being "melancholy and demented." The cause of her insanity, according to the asylum records, was "misfortune and destitution." She was, it seems, driven insane by poverty and despair. And her children were placed in a workhouse while she was institutionalized.

BUT when I tell their story to my grandchildren, I remind them (with genuine admiration) that Mary's children all went on to live very productive lives. Mary was the mother of the three bandmaster brothers who built brilliant careers and were pillars of their communities, as well as being good family men. If only Mary could have known! Once I found out about Mary's sad life and death (from tuberculosis), I made it my mission to be sure her descendants are aware of the bad and the good in that branch of the family tree.

Another example: In researching my mother's family, no one ever mentioned the many relatives who stayed behind in Hungary when my grandpa Teddy Schwartz (1887-1965) left for America, bringing his brother Sam and sister Mary to New York within a few years after he arrived. All his life, Teddy kept one photo of his mother, Hani Simonowitz Schwartz (see image at top). It must have been painful for him to look back and think about his parents and other relatives he would never see again.

Only through Yad Vashem did I find out that grandpa Teddy actually had many more terrible losses to mourn. I was shocked and dismayed to discover that his other siblings (and their families) were all killed in the Holocaust, his niece being the only survivor. No mention of this tragedy in the family tree minutes, no family stories passed down.

In my mind, I believe the heartache of these losses was why my grandpa Teddy was so insistent that the family observe a moment of silence annually for all the relatives who had passed away in the previous year. That yearly moment of silence--initiated by Teddy and led by him year after year--were recorded regularly in the family tree minutes. Clearly, Teddy believed it was important for the family to at least acknowledge the downs as well as the ups in life.

I agree with my grandpa. Let's make the family aware of the downs, not just the ups. Do we have to publicly disclose everything negative in the tree? No. In fact, there are a couple of stories that I've written for my files only, and mentioned orally but not documented for distribution to the entire family, out of respect for living descendants. (These stories have nothing to do with secrets like "non-parental events," by the way.)

Notice that I'm putting the full stories in my files, to be passed to my heirs after I join my ancestors. The stories won't be lost, and at some point, the historian of the next generation may judge that the time is right to say more to more people.

What do you do with the negative stories you uncover in your tree?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Most Popular Genealogy Blog Pages in 2017

In 2017, the most popular page on my blog was the "ancestor landing page" devoted to hubby's 5th great-grandfather, Halbert McClure from Donegal. Also popular were the landing pages about the Larimer family, Schwartz family, Birk family, Bentley family, and Wood family of Ohio.

These landing pages summarize what I know about each main surname or family on my tree and my husband's tree, including links to my blog posts about those names/families written in more than 9 years of blogging. And yes, these pages are cousin bait that have brought me new connections over the years!

One other popular page was my Genealogy--Free or Fee page, with links to 17 posts I wrote about frugal research strategies and when it pays to pay for a document.

The other popular page features Sample Templates (for inventory, indexing, cousin connections, and genealogy sources) I invite you to try or adapt for your own genealogy purposes.

Happy ancestor hunting in 2018! More to come.