Making Family History a Family Affair

Beginning to work on your family history can be intimidating and overwhelming--particularly when you have a current family that takes most of your time. You might feel like you just don't have several extra hours a week without children to spend researching your ancestors. And, you might be right. But that doesn't mean you have to give up. You just need to find a new way to look at it. Family history isn't only doing research in a library by yourself-- it can and should be a family affair. Here are some ideas to get you started down the family history path with your family--no expertise or background in family history research required. Interview a Relative I had my first "family history experience" when I was sixteen. My mother decided I should interview my great-grandmother and record memories and stories from her life (I wondered why she hadn't decided she should interview my greatgrandmother). Despite my mom's enthusiasm, I remained ambivalent. But she was persistent. She bought a tape, found a tape recorder, wrote a list of questions, drove me to my great-grandma's house, and basically kicked me out of the car. My great-grandmother passed away about four years later. Because of that interview, my family now has an invaluable glimpse into her life that would've been lost otherwise. But, there was another benefit to the interview. I grew up in Texas, far away from where all my relatives lived in Utah. When I did the interview, I didn't know my great-grandma well. The idea of spending an entire afternoon with someone who was, well, old sounded awkward to me. During that afternoon though, my view changed. Instead of seeing an old woman with white hair and wrinkly skin who could only read large-print books, I saw my great-grandma as the person in her stories--a young girl with long, blonde hair who, in her words, "would rather dance than eat when I was hungry." And as I learned about her fascinating life, I felt a bond grow between us. Not only is interviewing family members rewarding, it's also simple. Following a few suggestions can make your experience more successful. First, let the person know you'd like to talk to him or her and ask their permission to record the conversation. Then, write down a list of questions. During the interview, you don't have to stick to this list exactly, but it can provide a helpful guide or prompt if you need it. Arrange to talk in a quiet place where you won't be disturbed by other people or noises. Also, make sure you have the right equipment. Test your tape recorder ahead of time and avoid relying on batteries during the interview. Purchase a high-quality tape that will last a long time and produce a clear sound. Now, digital recorders offer another option as well. But there is something more important you can do to ensure you have a successful interview. You can listen. Ask open-ended questions such as, "What was your mother like?" instead of yes or no questions. Resist the urge to interrupt, share stories of your own, or jump in during pauses. Instead, allow your relative time to gather thoughts or dig deeper into his or her memory. Later, transcribe the tape. Only do a minimal amount of editing to the transcription. Taking out repeated parts of sentences, or other think-out-loud-phrases will make the transcription flow more smoothly without losing anything of value. This paper copy of the interview can serve as a back-up to the tape as well as a more convenient form to refer to or to copy and distribute to others (with your relative's permission). Transcribed interviews will often be among a family's most priceless possessions--one of the most important parts of their family history collection. And, interviewing can help you develop connections with older family members. It can even help your teenagers develop those connections. Maybe my mom knew that. Write and Preserve Family Letters When my brothers and sister and I were young, my parents lived away from their families. Nearly every week, my mom wrote a letter that she sent to their parents and siblings. These letters told about everyday events, described milestones in our lives, and shared humorous experiences from the week. When my family gets together now, we sometimes pull out these letters. We read about the time my fouryear- old-friend and I wrote all over my bedroom wall, or the time my brothers tried to dig a hole to China in the backyard. Then we laugh until our stomachs hurt. Now, I live in Massachusetts with my husband and children. Our parents live in Texas and California. They miss so many of those precious moments in my children's lives. So, I've tried to follow my mother's example and write a weekly letter, which I send by email every Sunday afternoon. I write about my two-year-old insisting she's Dora the Explorer and my five-year-old proposing to the neighbor girl on the bus. And, I write about how for no reason at all, my son leaned over to my daughter one night and said, "You're my best friend." These letters bring our families closer together by allowing faraway loved ones to share in the little triumphs and tragedies of our lives. But, they also preserve these triumphs and tragedies for my children to read years from now--and for my children's children someday. I print these letters and put them together in a collection, thinking of them as our family journal. You don't have to be an accomplished author to write family letters. And you don't need to have anything profound to say. You just need to set aside about fifteen minutes a week. Then, you have to make the effort to save, print, and gather the letters in one central place so they can be easily accessed when someone wants to read them later. There's another side to this. Most of us not only send letters; we also receive them. These received letters can also serve as a valuable source of family history information. Save those letters from your grandma or from your little brother or son on a mission. (See the "Preservation Tips" sidebar on page 59 for some ideas on how to ensure the letters survive.) Of course, we all know that with email fewer letters are actually put on paper and sent through the mail. But remember you can print your emails too. Incorporate Family History into Family Home Evening What better way can you involve your family in family history than by making it a part of family home evening? Now, before you start conjuring up images of dragging toddlers around research libraries on Monday night, let me propose a few other ideas. (The toddlers in research library thing doesn't work so well--trust me, I've tried it.) One of the most popular family home evenings at our house is to have a birthday party for an ancestor. We choose an ancestor with a birthday during that month. At the beginning of the party, we spend some time talking about the ancestor's life (this requires preparation and a little research on someone's part). If we have photos, journals, or biographies about the ancestors, we share those as well. Then, at the end we have a cake and sing, "Happy Birthday." Incorporating family history in this way can appeal to even the youngest child. The entire family can learn about their heritage and begin to develop that love for ancestors that often provides the motivation for further action. Another way to bring family history into family home evening is by using stories of ancestors to illustrate gospel principles being taught. For example, if you are teaching a lesson on faith, you might share a story of an ancestor who exhibited faith in some way. Using family stories helps gospel principles become more real and meaningful for children. It also ensures that these important, inspiring family stories will survive in the family's memory. For older children, you can venture into other types of activities-- even actual research. Everyone might find family history research more enjoyable when they work together. If family history is new to you, set up a time to visit your local family history center and have the volunteers there get you and your family oriented. If you have more experience, bring older children along to look at records or documents that contain information about your family. Collect What Already Exists There may be a lot of information about your family that has already been researched and assembled out there somewhere. One of the first and most important steps of family history research is to fi nd out what's already been done. Someone else may have already looked for and found the very information you need. Gathering existing information is certainly not a solo project. In fact, one of the best parts about it is that it provides you opportunities to make connections with relatives you may have never even known you had. It also creates the kind of project on which your immediate family can work together. People with genealogy experience know there are a number of places you should always check for information about your family. Certain databases and other collections contain compiled family trees and family histories that other researchers have submitted. These are wonderful, and you should definitely look into them. But, your family members might have a lot of important genealogy information that never got submitted to databases such as these. Start the search with people close to you. Call your parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Then reach out a little further to relatives you might not know well--great-aunts or uncles, second cousins, etc. The further you expand your search, the more you'll find. What do you say when you call these long-lost cousins anyway? First, always explain who you are and how you're connected to the family. Then, ask specific questions. Ask if this person has letters, photographs, written histories, or any documents about the ancestor. Also, ask if he or she knows of anyone else in their family who might have any of these things. Always offer to send money for expenses someone might incur to copy or mail papers to you. Finally, be sure to leave your contact information in case the person thinks of something later. There are great benefits to getting the word out that you care about family history. Unfortunately, when someone dies or moves, papers get thrown away--often papers that would've been priceless to someone interested in family history. When my great-grandmother passed away, her daughter told me about a large collection of letters she had found that my great-grandparents had written to each other. I asked her where these letters were. She replied, "Oh, I threw them out. I couldn't imagine what anyone would want with them now." Let your extended family know that you would love to have letters like this (or photos, journals, etc.). That way, the next time someone considers throwing something out, they'll call you instead. Even if you do nothing more than store the papers safely for now, you'll be doing the family a great service. Take a Family History Trip What family doesn't like going on vacation? Away from the distractions of everyday life, vacations present ideal family bonding time. They also present ideal opportunities to learn about and experience family history in an exciting way. Family history trips can be as simple as taking an afternoon excursion to someplace close by or as elaborate as a multiple-day, full-scale, travel-across-the-country vacation. With a little effort, you can often find family history destinations close to home--or at least not too far out of your way. The next time you're going to drive to see your brother who lives a few hours away or to visit a National Park you think your kids will love, check your family group sheets first. See if your ancestors lived near any of the places you'll visit or drive through. If so, arrange your schedule so you have a few hours to visit the places they lived. Go inside the churches they attended, walk the paths they walked, and wander in the cemeteries where they might be buried. Even better, visit the local historical society or library and look for new information about your family. Traveling with children is always an adventure, so you'll want to plan well and be flexible. While taking these family history trips, I've had children throw up in cars multiple times, lost luggage, had a flat tire at the side of a dark freeway in a foreign country, and arrived at the only hotel in miles (where I had reservations) to discover their doors locked and the place deserted. But, I've also made amazing discoveries, developed a deep connection to my ancestors, and had lots of fun with my family. These family history trips have provided some of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Attend and Participate in Family Reunions Family reunions provide a great opportunity to strengthen and develop bonds between family members who may not see each other regularly or even know each other very well. They can also provide the ideal setting for many family history activities--including many of those discussed above. Make an effort to attend family reunions--particularly those that bring together several generations and levels of cousins. Then, do some preparations beforehand so you can get the most out of it. Arrange to interview an older relative. Contact people who will be attending and ask if they would bring copies of any documents or biographies about the family for you. In return, bring your information to share with others. If you're feeling ambitious, you could even incorporate some family history activities into the reunion agenda. Set aside an evening for some of the older members of the family to share stories and memories about their families. Ask people to send photos, documents, or biographies ahead of time, and compile packets for people to purchase at cost. Or, make a CD with family history information that people can print out at home. Involve others in carrying out a project like this. If you divide up the work, it won't overwhelm anyone. And, everyone will benefit from the finished product. These are just a few ideas. There are lots of other ways to bring family history into your family. Keep a family journal or help your children begin to write in their own journals. Take and label family photos. Make a family scrapbook or a memory book with pictures and documents of your ancestors. You can probably think of other ideas on your own. So stop feeling guilty about the family history you're not doing. Instead, make getting involved with family history a family affair. Choose something small to start out and work at a pace that suits your schedule. You might discover that your whole family finds it more fun than you ever expected--certainly more fun and rewarding than cleaning out that refrigerator.
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