Sunday, January 29, 2012

Week Five - Back to that box of unlabeled family photos

          This week’s assignment for you genealogical do-it-yourselfers is pretty simple and can be a lot of fun, depending on your family!
          Take your box of unlabeled photos over to the homes of your various relatives who live geographically nearby and see how much information they can add to your lost and lonely photos.  Alternatively, invite a crowd of them over for dinner, keep the food part casual so you aren’t fretting, and spend the afternoon looking at those old photos together.
          Engaging your family in your project is always a good idea.  You never know what tidbits of information someone else has that is so commonplace to them that they assume everyone else knows it.  Or else they think that the things they know aren’t important because they are dates or places, but “mere” stories about the past.
          In my own family both of those scenarios have played themselves out time and again.  Because I have lived away from home since I was 18 – sometimes simply living on the other side of the state, but most recently living on the other side of the country for the past 17 years – there have been many moments that I have missed out on in our family. 
But my three sisters all lived within no more than an hour of my parents for years and still live very close to my mom.  The result is that they have been around to hear stories and ask questions that I could not.  I may know the facts, but they know the good stuff.
This has been helpful in identifying photos, as well.  While they may not know the year the picture was taken, they often are the ones who can tell me who the subjects are and what event is occurring or where the action is taking place.
My cousins on my mom’s side of the family are all close in age to me, some older, some younger, so we communicate with each other still.  They are another source of information – they can recognize their parents as kids, and they, too know stories that I have never heard.
But some folks might find themselves in my husband’s position.  He is the youngest son of two effectively only children.  So no aunts or uncles (the one uncle they had died when he was still a young man so no aunt or cousins there) and no cousins to lean on for information.  To make matters even more difficult, his mother has descended so far into the depths of dementia that she is no longer communicative.  That leaves dad as their only source of information.
Fortunately my father-in-law is the kind of man who knows his family history and is willing to talk about it.  He has spent hours sorting, organizing, and labeling his collection of family photos.  And any questions that his sons have (or any that I have as the busy-body family historian daughter-in-law) he is willing to answer and tells great stories that are either brand-new pieces of information or old family tales.
“But what if dad won’t talk about his past?” or “what if I am the oldest generation?” I hear some of you plaintively wail.
No worries.  You have the internet!
Do a family search on your name.  I bet you find someone somewhere with the same last name who either does family history or is part of a clan that has a newsletter.  Introduce yourself.  Join in.  Share the information you have and ask your questions there.
About a year ago I found a group of ladies and gentlemen who I call my cousins.  They are all related to me through my paternal grandmother’s side of the family, and have worked on their family research for years.  One intrepid cousin runs the family newsletter that she puts out every quarter, and there I can find new bits of information as well as post my “who is this?” photos and gain assistance (or at least sympathy) from distant family members.  Sure, it can be a slow process, but some progress is better than none!
So this week gather up your family and your pictures and see what you can come up with.  Hopefully the results are fewer photos in your “unlabeled” box AND closer family ties.


  1. Really good article, Kate! My mother's family has been spectacularly unwilling to participate. At the 90th birthday party for my one remaining maternal aunt, all attendees (my first and second cousins) vowed to make the reunion an annual event. No one, however, followed through when the invitation to plan the next gathering went out. Rats!
    Well, my genealogy project marches on anyway. LOL!
    I'm setting goals for 2012 which include more phone calls with family members to gather family stories and gathering more documentation to prove the various connections I've puzzled out so far.
    Your article has given me the encouragement to search onward! :-)

    1. Donna, take heart! My dad's family was the same way. Maybe even worse. One year he got all of his siblings to agree to meet at our house one weekend for a reunion just because their mother wanted them all together one more time. Everyone had their special food requests, seating requests, etc. But they all agreed to this one specific date. My Mom cooked and cleaned and prepared, Dad and Grandma were so excited. Everything was ready and no one came! No one! Nor called. Nor ever offered an explanation or apology.

      Mom was upset, Dad was furious, and Grandma was crushed.

      They never did get together, even for Grandma's funeral. One couldn't make the drive, another had something else planned.

      They *thought* they valued family, but words and actions, you know!

      Life was and is different on my Mom's side, and Mom has been really great about helping to ID photos from Dad's side of the family (since Dad passed away nearly 6 years ago) And I have found that some of my cousins on my Dad's side will help out one-on-one. They are just a careless crowd. I guess I should say "we" are a careless clan (although I think my sisters and I are different!).

      So soldier on with your research, teach the younger generations to value their past, and keep on poking and prodding to get info from your family! It is worth the effort! GOOD LUCK!