In this blog series, genealogical historian Scott Phillips invites us along on his journey through genealogy and shares some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.
If I had a thruppenny bit for each time I said ‘Oh, how I wish I could have just two minutes with ___________ (fill in the blank with the name of almost any ancestor)’, I’d be a very wealthy fellow! But since none of us have our time machine figured out quite yet, we must do our best through our genealogy and family history work to capture the lives and times of our ancestors. If you follow me on my blog at Onward To Our Past, you know in addition to loving genealogy, I love history. It was always my favourite class in school, but the more history classes I took the more I came to discern a certain teaching pattern. The pattern was that frequently my teachers quit teaching history at the time they lived. For example, if they lived through World War II, they didn’t have a tendency to cover it as ‘history’. When we are working on our personal histories if we aren’t careful we might fall into the same trap.
am sure you did too. In my case this person is my mum, Laverne. She is on the cusp of 93 and she has a wealth of knowledge, stories, anecdotes, and names about our extended family. We spoke about these almost daily when I began my genealogy. But it was just recently that I came to realize I was as guilty as my history teachers when it came to my mum. You see I realized that while I have her in my tree and I regularly gleaned stories and information on our family from here, I didn’t have all that much written about her! I had been so intent on learning all I could about those in the past I was ignoring those in the present!
So my insight this month is this: “Don’t ignore those present as you study the past in your genealogy and family history work.”
It was as if I had been struck by lightning when I had that ‘oh wow’ moment, which was when I realised that while I was using my mum over and over again as a resource, fact-checker, and for her amazing memory of place names, family members, and their stories, I had not been capturing her story! I was just a bit too busy to see the forest for the trees, so I set out to rectify this oversight.
I realized that my mum had lived through some of the most trying times of in our nation’s history. She was born into the early Czech immigrant community in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in the throes of The Great Depression. She lost her father during those trying times when she was only twelve. Her mum, whom we affectionately called Nana, like so many other women, was thrust into leading a single-parent household for my mum and her older brother, Ed. Nana was a strong and loving woman who became a hotel maid and who in her ‘spare time’, would make chocolates in her kitchen. My mum and her brother would then sell these chocolates door-to-door to help support the family. If you will pardon the pun, one of my ‘sweetest’ memories of my Nana is when she taught me the ‘code’ candy makers used to identify what was in each of the chocolates by the design of the swirl on top. In hindsight, I bet she was just sick and tired of me sticking my finger in the bottom of the chocolates to see what was inside!
I also remember my mum telling me her story of how, when coming home from school and getting off the streetcar several blocks from home, she could tell where she was by the language she would hear block-by-block. First she would hear Yiddish, then it was Polish, followed by German, and finally getting close to home hearing the familiar Czech of her family and neighbours.
My mum also lived through World War II and while my father, Bill, was fighting his way across Europe with the 83rd infantry, she became a temporary single parent herself when my eldest sister was born. Luckily for mum, family was close at hand at that time with Nana living with her while brother Ed and his wife and family were living in the upstairs of the duplex. One of my favorite stories that I have added to my mum’s profile on our tree, is from when her brother Ed’s wife had their second child just days before my eldest sister was due. Within hours after Ed took his wife and new daughter home from the hospital he had to turn around and bring my mum in to have my sister. The hospital nursing staff was not certain at all what to make of this fellow who seemed to have not one, but two pregnant wives at the same time! Not at all!
Family has always been extraordinarily important to my mum and so it became important to each of our family as well. I am blessed by the memories of a multitude of huge extended-family gatherings, almost always held at our home, due to my mum’s efforts. Every birthday, holiday, and sometimes just because it was ‘Saturday’ was reason for my mum to call the family together at our home for a gathering and a meal. Mum also knew the importance of intergenerational families and so we were exceptionally blessed with always having a grandparent living in our home with us as I grew up.
Since my ‘oh wow’ moment, I have now captured and added dozens of the stories my mum has shared with me. Some stories are funny, like how often she would get her younger cousin, Gladys, in trouble through her dares and double-dares. Others are poignant, such as when her brother passed away at far too young an age and when my dad passed away just a few years ago. Many of these stories are just about living her life in the unique way that only mum knows how. As I like to say, I am busy now adding her ‘square’ to the quilt that is our colourful, diverse, and wonderful family history.
After all isn’t this what we are really trying to capture for our family trees? The lives and those who lived them and the impact they had on those of us who strive to document them. It is for me and I bet it is for you too! So please leave a comment and tell me … do you capture family stories for your family tree?
Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services in Indiana, US. Scott calls genealogy his ‘sweetest passion’ and his wife calls it ‘our shadow’! Scott specialises in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the UK and Italy. In addition to joining findmypast.co.uk as a columnist, he is a regular genealogy contributor for Huffington Post United Kingdom, GenealogyBank.com and his own website, Onward To Our Past. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page and on his website/blog