Saturday, December 17, 2011

Family History 101- Just Talk and Write It Down!

I have  been caught up (rather obsessively) recently with a family history project on behalf of my wife's family. The most important thing to learn about family history is that it is best accomplished as a collaborative project. In fact, as it is all about family, I'm not sure there is any other way to actually do it. Families and family history are all about connections anyway. They without us and we without them cannot be made perfect and all.

We all have different talents and abilities that can complement each other in our family history work. My wife, for example, is a very organized and determined person. She has been trying to get some personal histories out of her parents for some time. This last year she set up a project in conjunction with the monthly family dinners we have at my parents-in-law. She prepared some outlines of questions to aid in discussion of several themes on parents, school, work, dating, etc. I'll post those that I have in digital form on a separate page. Then she started off discussion with these questions. A niece and I typed away furiously on our laptops to record the discussions. We provided our rough draft notes to my wife. She has been meaning to get to them but didn't really know how to start or what to do.

So I had to come to the rescue - it's hard to find those opportunities to really be of service to my wife who doesn't like to be the princess in distress. I finally convinced her that I would be glad to write it up as I had with other projects for my own family. So I began to tackle it.

It's fortunate that I really get along well with my in-laws. I found the project very enjoyable. But I also just love history--and writing about it. I took my draft notes and checked them against those my niece had written. I smoothed out the language to write it up as a narrative. And it is so easy these days to do the extra research for context, particularly to get the basic data on people mentioned from  (As in, "who were Aunt Minnie's husband's brothers?") And I have pretty good "google" skills to find out things about the places they referenced, like Granite Mill where my wife's grandfather worked. So, I footnote profusely with this background info, but then I am an attorney.

So here I am trying to get as much done before Christmas so we can present something to my in-laws. It keeps me away from politics a little. But trying to do some good for family brings us a little more of that peace on earth, good will to men stuff.

Ho, ho, ho!


  1. (Anon/M) I agree with almost everything you say. However, with oral history (or any history). you're dealing with human beings and their memories (which can be very selective). Granted, I am as lazy as a cat and easily discouraged, but this is what I've been dealing with. I sat my mother down to relate her childhood experiences. TWICE. Once into a tape recorder (so we'd have her voice), the other dictated to me. After she left,I went back to compile the two accounts and translate them for my kids. Lo and behold, they didn't jibe. She is 94 and it's unlikely she will visit again. The background facts would not be available on The other problem is human nature. One of my closest relatives has the dubious gift to spin myths (and believe them as truth). The other (no longer a relative but important) has the convenient ability to delete from his life story anything that doesn't show him at his best. To be honest (a quality that I like to think I possess) my daughter is certain I do a little bit of both too. How do you reconcile all those human threads? Should we be resigned to Alex Haley's conclusion, "History is three things: a-What I write b-What you write c- What really happened, which we will probably never know"?

  2. Anon/M -
    As Dumbledore said to Harry, "Just because it is happening in your head doesn't mean it's not real." In my view, and I'm no professional historian, but it seems to me that oral history is just that person's view of things, which is just fine. And that can change over time even with the same person. Some objective facts and dates can be checked which help shore up or discount the stories. And you can always add a skeptical tone to the narration.

    But verbal stories are great! I was surprised at how honest and direct people can be when they just start talking. We got this one, and I should be careful here about telling stories about people who are still around and can box my ears. But this is pretty mild. Check this out:

    "K. said that they enjoyed being parents and recognized it was important. A neighbor across the street was concerned when they were going to have C. That was B. P. She just thought that it was terrible that they didn’t even have furnishings in the house. P. remembered that she said they would be able to do it if they didn’t keep having children. But P. told her that they were too precious and she’d rather have them than a couch. Now, P. says, 'I’d rather have a couch.'”

    [Great hilarity ensued.]


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