Southern California Genealogical Society
SCGS RESEARCH ASSISTANCE - Articles

Put It In Writing - Make it easy on yourself
Beth Maltbie Uyehara

For most of us, the thought of writing our family's history is a daunting topic.

Where do we start? What do we put in? What do we leave out? It seems that we know very little worth writing about ... few of us have a Napoleon in our pedigree, after all. And when we sit down at our computer, or pick up pen and paper, suddenly, nobody in our family seems to have done anything except get born, married and buried.

When we know little about people except their name, rank and serial number, so to speak, it’s hard to tell their stories.

Most of the time, genealogy consists of research about people we did not know: We collect a bunch of names and dates and locations, with little idea of who these people really were or what they were like. Even, in many cases, what they looked like, let alone what they sounded like, what their nicknames were, what they liked to eat, what their personalities were like, etc.

We treasure the least little insight into the real person lurking behind the “Ancestor.” A letter (Gosh, here’s her actual handwriting! Gee, she was scared of thunder!); a photo (Hey, great-great-grandma was a cutie! Check out that tiny waistline!); a mention in a diary (I didn’t know great-grandpa played the fiddle!!). Anything that fills us in on the real person is pure gold.

Why not resolve to be the kind of ancestor you wish you’d had, and record some of the details of your daily life and your relatives' lives?

In addition to your research into the distant past, make it a part of your genealogy record-keeping to jot notes from time to time about the events of the present and the near-past: your memories and knowledge of your childhood and the lives of your parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends - and even pets.

This, of course, like everything else worth doing, is easier said than done.

When we try to record things about the relatives we knew, it seems that we know too many unconnected, insignificant details to ever pull them together into a “story.” But we can make it easy on ourselves. Remember: We don’t have to write “Roots.” It doesn’t have to be a Big Deal. Just a few paragraphs on a single topic now and then will be cherished by our descendants.

The purpose of this column will be to cheer you on and remind you to get some of those fascinating details about your family members down on paper.

At the end of this article, read, “A Quilt of Memories,” by SCGS member Leila Orr Gormley. She wrote this for a recent SCGS Writers Workshop, after discovering that her daughter did not know the origins of a family heirloom quilt. If Leila’s story doesn’t inspire you, nothing will!

Leila sat down to tell the story of the quilt for her daughter. That’s all. But her short memoir tells much more than just the story of a quilt. In a few short paragraphs, it tells us vital details about Leila’s mother’s life, her personality, her wedding dress, her cooking (the “vegetable soup” dress), the Depression, the clothes they wore, Leila’s own childhood, her brother’s childhood, their neighbors ... and what life and neighborliness were like in the 1930s.

The quilt will be treasured by Leila’s family for generations to come - it would be in any case, as it is a tangible link to the family’s past–but think how much more it will mean to the family because of the account that Leila wrote about how it came to be.

After you read her story, stop and think of the stories connected to your own family heirlooms and souvenirs. If you don’t know how they came to be a part of your family, you surely know how you yourself got them, and their recent history.

Take a minute today to jot down a few sentences about the various heirlooms you possess, or items of your own that you're saving (your prom dress? your army uniform? souvenirs of a family vacation? tacky gifts your kids made in school that you wouldn't part with for a million bucks?), sign and date the page and tuck it in with your genealogy records.

It’s easy, it’s quick– and it will be pure gold for those who come after you.


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