Monday, December 19, 2011

Save Your Memories While They are Still Alive

Do you find yourself missing certain family members around the holidays?  Re-telling Grandpa's stories but apologizing - "I wish you had heard him tell that story, he did it so much better."?  Finding yourself telling the younger generation things about people that they never knew, but were an integral part of your life?

I know I do.

I have hit the place in my life where I am either the second or the first generation in my family.  I used to be one of those who sat at the kids' table - you know the one I mean.  The wobbly card table way at the end of the dining room table with both leaves in it, the kitchen table added to that, and then one or more card tables to get all of the kids at a table.  Or else I was one of the kids who knelt on the floor to eat my dinner, using the piano bench as a table.

We sat down there at the foot of the family, semi-listening to the grown-ups' talk, eating Aunt Blanche's Cherry Delight before we ate anything else, and pegging dinner rolls and olives at each other.

Today I sit at either the kitchen or the dining room table.

My dad's parents have passed on, as has my dad and all of his sisters and brothers.  That makes my generation the old folks.  Fortunately, Dad was the next-to-youngest, so my cousins are 10 - 15 years older than I am, so I am not the matriarch of the family!  And Mom's parents have also passed away, but Mom, Aunt Mildred, and Uncle Bill are still here, so I would probably be at the kitchen table.

Why do I mention this?

Two reasons.

The first is to give you a little tantalizing teaser about a new venture that Heritage and Family is about to embark upon.  I may even have a short video clip to show you in a couple more days.  This idea came about as the result of my own longing for the words and songs and stories of my family that have been lost.  My dad wrote a song for me when I was born, and I know all the words, I have a 3x5 card in his handwriting with the melody written on it, but I don't have his voice singing it for me.

I don't have Grandpa telling stories about his days running a steam shovel, nor Grandma James telling about life on "the farm".

So I have embarked on an outgrowth of the family history in the written form to family history on film.  Sort of an opportunity to ave your memories in advance.

Check back here in a few days to see more about it.  I'm pretty excited about it.

But there is a second reason that I bring this up.

It's almost Christmas.  A time when we get together with our families.  And a great opportunity to save some of those future memories.

So this year, drag out the video camera, or make sure you have your charger for your cell phone, and point that baby at someone and ask a question.

"How did you and Grandma meet?"

"Why does everyone call you 'Marie' when your name is Jeannie?"

"Tell that joke about the rattlesnake and the guy with the booze."

Then download them, save them, give them to your family, and plan to do this again next time.

You won't regret the time and effort it takes.

I promise.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Your Christmas Family Motto

                Being a genealogist means that I get to know a lot about people that I don’t know.

                Which is great fun if you are a nebby kind of gal like I am.  (“Nebby” is a Pittsburghese word – it means “nosey” – possibly a slopification of “neighborly” but who knows?!)  Imagine being paid to look deeply into someone else’s life.

                Sometimes I turn up great fun things.  I have a new client with a grandmother named “Cinderella”.  That is a first for me.   I hope she was worthy of the name, but since my task is the mother, not the grandmother, I don’t know much more about her than that.

                I have another client whose ancestors moved back and forth from the US to Canada based on what they thought of the US government.  Like us?  Stay here.  Dislike us?  Move to Quebec.  Decide we are okay after all?  Move back to the US.
                Or the great times infinity grandparents who immigrated to the US.  Neither spoke English, and neither spoke the other’s language.  But somehow they communicated well enough to get married and have a large and prosperous family.

                Of course sometimes the client’s family offers up some unpleasant surprises.  I mentioned slave-owning in my previous blog.  I have several clients who discovered (or already knew) that their family owned slaves just four generations ago.  Some were shocked.  Some tried to deny it.  Some tried to excuse it.  Some chose to ignore it and move on.

                On the home page of my website is my credo for doing genealogy and family history.  I realized early on that folks weren’t always going to like what I told them.  So I thought I should warn them up front that my goal is to uncover the truth.  Not the story you want to hear, but the real story.

               I wrote:

               "Our purpose is to know, understand, and celebrate the events that relate to our families.  
               While delving into the past may produce some less-than-savory ancestors, or put an end to a
               family legend, a sense of humor and a desire for truth will enable us to celebrate our families as
               they really were and are."    

                What I find most interesting when I do my research and uncover the past of total strangers, is not so much the stories I find and present to my clients, but their reaction to the stories.  That tells me so much more about them and their family than any story or fact I dig up. 

                Are they overly proud of people and things in their past?
                Do they want to hush up unpleasant truths?
                Do they insist on the veracity of their family myths, in spite of contrary facts?
                Or do they wonder why and how things happened?
                Do they laugh at the humor and mourn the sorrows of the past?
                Can they accept that their ancestors, like themselves, were mere mortals, prone to deeds of greatness, generosity, and goodness as well as acts of stupidity, ignorance, cowardice, and fear?

                Which brings me to the upcoming holiday season, when we all get together with our families, and sometimes wonder if we were, indeed, switched at birth. 

                Amidst all the hustle and bustle, the crankiness, the overeating, the disappointment in gifts, and the turmoil that comes from enforced togetherness, remind yourself that these are your ancestors, or your descendants.  And make your purpose the same as mine when I research a client’s family:

    Know, understand, and celebrate our families.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where are YOU From?

                “Where are you from?”
                Such an innocuous question.
                But if you are a genealogist, or are interested in your family history, this is a more difficult question.  To wit:
                I can tell you that I am currently from the Portland, Oregon area.
                I can tell you that I came here from North Caroline, where I did my graduate work.
                Or perhaps I can say that I am from Pennsylvania, my home state.  Or I could list Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Kentucky, and/or Oklahoma as other possible “froms”.
                My grandparents on Mom’s side of the family are from West Virginia.
                Dad’s family originally lived in Virginia.
                Mom’s family came to the US from Germany.
                The James family arrived from Wales, while the McConahys came from Ireland.
                So the question of my provenance is a difficult one to answer.
                I imagine the same is true for many of you, too.
                Even stay-at-home types, like my husband, get complicated.
                He has lived his whole life in the Portland metro area.  His dad is from Yakima, Washington.  His mom’s family moved here from Winchester, West Virginia.
                But before that that you can find a German mercenary who came to fight for the British, got captured, and chose to pledge his loyalty to the burgeoning nation and stayed on.
                My father-in-law’s family moved west from Pennsylvania.  They actually lived in the same part of the state in which part of my family lived.  Before that they were good, sturdy Yankee stock from New England.  There is even a famous preacher in the family.  Before the family lived here they lived in England and Holland.
                The places that we are from say something about us:  who we used to be, what we wanted to find, why we left.  We may have been driven by desire to go, driven by the weather to flee, driven by a government or religion or lifestyle to escape.
I think of my mother-in-law’s family who literally fled a flood that destroyed their entire life and all of their possessions.  The Vanport Flood exodus led to a series of events that ultimately led to the meeting, courtship, and marriage of my in-laws, so I find it hard to see the whole episode as anything other than good.  My husband is the result of that union.
I’ve lived all over this big sprawling country.  I have been fortunate enough to live in Switzerland one summer, and travel to Europe three other times.  Every place I have been to, visited, lived in, or passed by has felt like home to me.  There is something about each place that resonated with me – even sunny Mediterranean places that no one in my family ever hailed from.
Some might say that proves an enormous store-house of former lives is stacked up inside of me.
I prefer to think that for me every place that I am can be my home.  I can see myself living in any of the places I have been to, or I can see myself being from some of them (no offense to any Neapolitans, but I would rather be from Naples than live there!)
So to answer the question “Where are you from?” I suppose I have no answer that makes any sense.