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family history

Showing an Older Generation

When I think about my grandmother, my mother’s mother, I smile to myself. I loved her so much and almost everyone who knew her loved her too. When I write my family history I have to get across, to people who have never met her, the reasons why I felt that way. I can’t rely only on details of height and weight. I need to show how she welcomed me at the door, her wispy hair that she combed so carefully, her flowered apron with candies in the big pockets.

People are the most important part of a family history. They are the core and the heart of what you are telling about. Their physical description is important, but more important is your interpretation of their character, and why you responded to them in the way you did. The aim is to make anyone reading your story feel as if they almost knew this person; that they would recognize them if they met them on the street.

Start by jotting down your memories of this person – just sentence fragments, like “The time when…” Include all that you can think of so your character is fully rounded, with all their foibles and eccentricities. Think of them in different periods of their life. The uncle who could climb trees and fix the roof – and the same uncle as he faded away after his stroke.

Take out the photograph album and study photographs of the person. Memories can sometimes play us false. You might remember grandfather as a very tall person. Then you look at the photographs and you notice that he really wasn’t tall. So what was there about his character that made you think of him that way? Explore your feelings and your memories because his character will become clearer to you as you start to understand the reasons for this.

Try to remember what they told you about their earlier life because this will give context to later events. My little grandmother had a brother who was large, imposing and had an important job. I was in awe of him and hardly opened my mouth in his presence. My gentle grandmother nagged him all the time. I couldn’t understand this until I realized that he had been her youngest brother. Even into their seventies and eighties she still felt she had to keep him in order.

It’s highlights like this that will bring the people in your family history alive. What were the contradictions you saw in people? When did they step outside their normal patterns of behaviour? How did they respond to crisis or to the unexpected? When did they show themselves to be unexpectedly strong or weak?

People, as you reveal them clearly, are the richness of your family history. Enjoy your memories as you share that wealth.

Living in Times Past

We’ve all heard grandpa’s stories of walking miles to school, all uphill. We roll our eyes and say to each other, “Yup, and it was uphill both ways”.

But if we are to expect our children and their children to understand the world our grandparents lived in we have to look at the expectations that were placed on them. Through our questions we must try to understand that earlier world, both for ourselves and for those younger than us. For them it is an even stranger existence to imagine.

We can recall all the comments: That a mile or two was nothing much to walk, even in a prairie winter. That older kids looked out for younger ones. That the teacher was always right. That children didn’t interrupt their elders, (and that’s if they got to speak at all). That your neighbours were Mr and Mrs Smith and not Bill and Maureen.

What did it feel like to struggle through snow and cold before and after school? How did you dry your wet clothes? How was the classroom heated? What if you were little and you couldn’t keep up to the older kids? Did you ever get the strap? In front of all the other kids?  Why did your parents read a chapter from the Bible every night?

That, as children, our grandparents did not have television, computers, cell phones is common enough knowledge. It’s fact. Ways of thinking, feelings and beliefs are harder to get across. What was it like to have neighbours listen in on a party line? Who was the first person you knew who had a television set? When you first got a TV, what did you like to watch? Who chose what you would listen to on the radio? What would you have rather listened to? And why? The ‘why’ will reveal character.

What customs did you have that sound impossible now? (“As kids, we couldn’t open our Christmas gifts till grandma had had her second cup of tea. And she drank so slowly!”) Tell me about meal times? Who was served first? What was your favourite meal of the week?

If grandparents have lived through the Depression, it would be interesting to ask how life changed for them then, and what they might have learned from it. Was their father out of work? How did mom keep the family together? If they lived through war time they will have had experiences that shaped them. “What was it like when your dad was away? Did your mom go out to work then?”

There is little point in asking an older person questions, such as “Why were older people so much respected then?” You’ll get an answer like “Well, they just were. That’s the way it was”. Only a sociologist could answer the question.  This is the time for questions that start “How did you feel about… What did you like/not like about…”

Often the ‘feeling’ and ‘liking’ questions elicit details that you can expand on to get a deeper picture of the life and times. Put yourself in the shoes of the kid in too-big snow boots, or waiting for a letter from dad in the Army. How do you think he feels?

Interviewing Family Members

You may find that most of the people you interview are older people. When you ask if you may talk to them about their memories they often start off:

“Well, you know, we just lived on the farm. There’s nothing much to say”. Or, “I just stayed at home. You should ask my husband – he went out to work.”

It helps if you prepare yourself for these objections by having prepared some simple  questions ahead of time. Don’t start out with the hard questions “Why is it you and your sister haven’t spoken to each other since 1985?” It might be the one question that is burning inside you, but it is not the question that will get the talking started.

Do some research ahead of time. Find out more about these people so you are not going in cold. Find out about their children, their hobbies and, if you can, find what they are proud of. They may be proud that their son is a doctor, or that “My husband built this house. Every single board of it.” People will talk about what they are proud of. It’s worthwhile putting into your history and it paves the way for other questions.

Make yourself familiar with some of the terms they are going to use. If Uncle Jim was a millwright, know what a millwright’s job consisted of. You don’t have to parade your knowledge (Maybe better that you don’t – if he’s been doing the job for forty years so he might know more about it than you do.) Just show that you have some familiarity with it, so you can base more complex questions on it.

 Prepare in practical ways too. Will you take a tape recorder? Do you have enough tape and enough battery life for a long session? Check your equipment to be sure it is in working order. Will you take notes? Be sure to take more than one pen or pencil. And get permission for recording or note-taking ahead of time.

While you are getting that permission ask if they have any old photographs they might like to show you. If they have some photographs ready when you arrive you will have a ready-made source of questions as you look at them. Other faces will appear in the pictures and you will have questions about these new people. There might be a different house, so you can ask “Where were you living then?” or “When did you move/why did you move/how long did you live in that town?”

Good preparation shows that you are going about your interviewing and research in a professional, business-like way. It gives your interviewees confidence in you and in your ability. It helps establish a level of trust that will pay dividends throughout your visit.

Some easy interview starter questions:

Tell me about your children. John’s the oldest, right?

Did you name your children after your parents?

Were you happy to retire?

Is that a photo of your mother? I’ve heard she was a warm/strict/careful person.

Was it in 1960 you were married? Do you have a picture of the wedding?

Shaping your family’s story

So, how organized would you like to be? Some people can get by happily with a few big piles of paper. Other people need a strict system. You work with what is most comfortable for you. There’s no point me telling you that you need a rigid system of files if rigid systems drive you crazy.

But it will help if you make an overview of exactly what you are planning to put together. To start with – Is this going to be the memories of just one person, yourself perhaps? Or is it to be the memories of a number of family members?

If you are writing a family history, then you might find it helpful to have files named for your maternal ancestors and paternal ancestors, and possibly have these subdivided into the different families and perhaps different time periods.

Families have a way of exploding once you start asking questions and doing some genealogical research. Suddenly you hear of a cousin Bertha in Florida that you had never heard mentioned before (which is, in itself, interesting). So you write in cousin Bertha’s name and ask some more questions. Then you find she has been married three times and has five children all of whom are married and she has thirteen grandchildren. Counting spouses, that’s 26 additional people. Easy enough to add in a genealogical chart, but are you going to include them in your family stories? And if so, how are you going to do that?

So questions will arise about what limits you will set, if any. And does anyone have power of veto? Can Grandfather Jones say “I don’t want any mention of my brother Albert. He stole our mother’s wedding ring and it broke her heart.”?

This raises the issue of who makes the decision. Do you arbitrarily decide that you will obey Grandfather Jones’ wishes, or will you ride off on a white charger to try to heal the rift in the family? Or do you have other family members helping you and wanting to be part of that decision making?

Your family history can be your project and yours alone. But if you have other people helping you, you may be able to get a lot more information, and access it much more quickly and easily. In return for their help you might have to give up some control over the project.

Another question that arises: If people give you a version of a story that you don’t agree with, what will you do? Will you hide that and present only your own version? Give only her version? Give both? You have the power to make all these decisions. And with that you have the power to shape the way generations to come will understand their family history.

By taking on this task you are going to have such fun exploring people and places and ideas. You establish the ground rules and you organize the project in the way that is comfortable to you.

Start by assembling as much information as you can. Store it in binders with labeled plastic sleeves where you can keep ideas, questions and thoughts on separate topics. Or do the same with an accordion file or colour coded file folders. Or do it all electronically. Work the way that you work best.

Seize the moment and get started. This literally is the project of a lifetime.

Memoir Writing 1

     Sometimes, just for the pleasure of it, I re-read one of Emily Carr’s short autobiographical pieces. Some are stories and some just snippets of memory but all are full of the flavour of life in Victoria over 100 years ago.

“Small” she calls herself, living with one younger brother and older sisters “Bigger” and “Elder” in a household dominated by a stern Victorian father. Small loved animals, Bigger loved children but Elder was religious and righteous and therefore quite difficult to have as an older sister.

Why should I care? These people are long dead and have no connection to me. Ah, but they do have a connection. The connection is the stories woven by Emily Carr. They are simple, with concrete words and short sentences. A child could easily read them. But they are the gift of times past to anyone who takes the time to follow them. How much more important are YOUR stories of your OWN family!

You could give that gift to future generations. “But they won’t care,” you say. “Anyway, they know all about me. My life’s not that interesting.”

Think of your grandmother. Do you know all about her? Which was her favourite dress? Her favourite song? How well did she like her sisters when they were girls? Which neighbours did she play with? Can you answer those questions? Has she left your her memoirs? What about your grandchildren? Will they know about your first puppy when you were eight years old? Or how you felt when your baby brother was born?

I am the only person in my family who remembers my grandparents Joseph and Rose Hannah Shaw. If I don’t write down what I recall of them my children and their children will never know that information. Maybe they don’t care right now. But they will care at some point and if I don’t  write about it they will never have access to that information. I am the gatekeeper of my family’s history.

You are the gatekeeper of your family’s history, but also of your own personal history. Do you children and grandchildren know how you and your spouse met?  Why you chose that location for your wedding? I would love to know why my mother snubbed her only niece, not allowing her to be bridesmaid at her wedding. It’s questions like these that future generations will ask. Don’t leave it any longer to ask your questions, investigate and record your knowledge for your family years into the future.

The time to start writing your own memories and recollections of family history is NOW! Become the family historian; the go-to person for family lore and knowledge.

Good hunting. Enjoy the tales you discover. And have fun!

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