My dad and I had the almost unbelievable luxury of traveling to England last year for a family research trip for my upcoming book, and we came away with some of the most meaningful stories our family’s ever shared.
Not just because of the memories we created by traveling together and getting good, solid quality time visiting my dad’s brother and his family, who live an ocean away from us, but the stories we pieced together of our ancestors based on the research we did.
Growing up, my mom and dad worked on genealogy - probably to help solve some of the mysteries from my dad’s side that are central to the book I’m writing.
I showed an interest in their work, so they taught me how to do some basic genealogical research and I would join them at the library to scroll through microfilms in search of our last name in rolls of old census records.
Off and on through the years, I’d pick it back up and, as technology started making old records more accessible, it became easier to go further and further back up the line.
Last summer, though, I found that my research helped with so much more than just finding facts about my ancestors’ vital statistics that led me to generations further and further back.
With everything I learned, I was able to build the stories of these people’s lives.
I found newspaper articles that described flooding and famine in my ancestors’ town, which explained why they were in a completely different region for the next census period.
In another case, I found that a great aunt I’d always known to be an “old maid,” had actually been married and had given birth to a stillborn baby. Later, probably from the stress of grief surrounding that unimaginable loss, she and her husband parted ways, and through the generations that followed, he was never really spoken of again.
Where before, I’d only captured a birth date, birth place, death date, place of death, and parents’ names, so I could search them up and do the same for them, on and on, up and up the line - now I was learning that seeing how far back I could trace the line wasn’t nearly as interesting as learning the stories of each person’s life.
Discovering notes written around the yearbook photo of a gorgeous young girl who looked like a movie star, reading how admired she was by her friends for being “congenial” and a “fine basketball player” tells a different story of the one I’d mentally crafted about the grandmother I remember.
Learning the stories of your ancestors’ lives help create a family legacy - not just for you, but also for your children.
It gives them a sense of connection and belonging to the “club” that is your family.
Warts and all.
Share those stories of that one weird uncle who would disappear for weeks at a time, then look completely different when he returned.
Share the stories of the great-grandmother who had newspapers piled ceiling high in every corner of her house.
The stories that make you and your cousins laugh so hard, you have to grab your belly to make it stop aching.
The stories that make you nod slowly in recognition of similarities you share with the generations before you.
If you’re doing your own family history research, I encourage you to do more than just collect and record your ancestors’ vital statistics.
Find out their stories.
Share not only how they died, but how they lived.
Help yourself understand the struggles and the celebrations of your forebears.
Help your kids see the incredible odds their grandparents and great grandparents faced, and the lessons they passed down through the generations, right down to where they stand today.
And all those crazy behaviors of the “weird” relatives that make you think, “Oh, I totally get it.”
The best way to get started is to start with the generations that are still living and to work backwards from there.
Start with your parents, if they’re still living. Ask them the factual questions - the date and place of birth, for example - just because you’ll need to have these in order to conduct accurate research.
But then ask them specific stories about their lives. Record them talking, if they’ll allow it, or take notes of their answers.
Ask them questions about their parents and their siblings, and reach out to those ancestors to interview them, if they’re still living, and repeat the whole process again and again.
Don’t stop yourself from capturing these stories because there’s no “big story” or notable event that you know about your ancestors.
Don’t feel like there’s nothing interesting to share.
It’s not just big events or family legends that are important to pass down.
It’s all the little moments. The mundane, daily movements throughout your ancestors’ lives are just as interesting to pass down, because life was so different then.
Even the generation before ours - our parents’ childhood, for example - were completely different from our own.
Here are a few places to visit for ideas on questions to ask:
And here’s a great - and FREE - place to start recording all the information you find out: MyHeritage.com, however, I use Ancestry.com, just because my dad and I have amassed a ton of research within that site.
Listen. I know you think your kids won’t be interested in this. And if they’re under the age of 25 or 30, they probably won’t be.
But as they get older, and you and your parents start to die off, and they start to see their own mortality edging in closer, it’ll surely become more interesting to them.
Having these family stories captured will be a gift from you to them - one that connects them to the generations upon generations of bloodlines, genes, personalities, and wrinkle patterns that they will someday see themselves in.