|Family Histories & Other Tales:
A Letter to My Cousin
by Janette Stender
Dear Alicia …
How did a project that began with the simple curiosity of “How do the Pogorzelskis relate to Dad?” come to include 1,746 people, 11 big binders, and hundreds of scraps of paper? How does a person go about tracing one’s family history? And why is it that now, when I am in the basement ironing and Jagger is lying on the floor munching an old rug, the thought comes to me that we are not alone: Who is this "Hannah," sharing ironing tips with me from the Great Beyond?
If you are unable to take a course, then buy or borrow a book about genealogy or at least find a magazine article that will disclose the latest genealogy software. I recommend a program rather than a paper trail because computer programs offer a means for sorting and printing information. I can tell you from experience that cutting out labels to paste them down on a tree can take days and produce a mess, whereas tapping computer keys to indicate format, number of generations, items to include, Print Preview, and Print takes seconds and produces an attractive, readable document that is easily reprinted and modified. For sorting and getting an overview, you just cannot beat a computer program. Even so, I have now tried three different programs, and although each has been an essential way to organize, none was the perfect solution!
Just like life itself, there is no one right or wrong program: You have to decide what works for you, and pretty much any program offers some benefits and some down sides. Any decent computer program will give you sorting options. Try to find one that produces a good-looking final product. Most sort by birth dates, but to me a calendar that is so inflexible that it lists three pages of “July” is not a presentable final product. I’d also like one that lists chronological birthdates not only by year but also by month and day. One that won’t sort burials by location can become cumbersome. You do not want to have to start separate files that necessitate retyping information you have already typed once (e.g., burials). Read product reviews and try to get feedback from users regarding just how good the final product will look without retyping to replace an ugly or bland format. Note: When I find that perfect program, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, go with what most accurately sorts and presents information.
Birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates can differ greatly from location to location, and over time, the information required to register a birth or death has changed. Some death references, for instance, give only date of death, whereas others may include location, circumstances, age, parents’ names, children, and burial location. Each bit of information or certificate can offer an insight into what was happening in the family at the time, each detail can fill in the puzzle and thus have value.
What’s more, my experience has been that where to find these certificates can vary from county to county, from state to state, and from country to country: Sometimes a health department has jurisdiction, sometimes a county is the source, and sometimes a church keeps records. And at some fortunate times, a family member will find and share a valuable piece of information or something they have found—perhaps an old naturalization paper in a box of pictures, a document that says, “Your grandfather came to this country in 1901 on the good ship Providence with ten dollars in his pocket.”
At this point, I need to tell you something that may sound odd: Do not be put off by death. It is, after all, a part of life, and a death certificate or an obituary can tell you much about the person’s life: his relatives, his line of work, her maiden name. Bob and I have spent many a weekend walking through cemeteries and snapping photos of graves that showed dates of birth and death. At each grave, we remembered the person and how he or she fit into the family. The walks became a story-telling session, a way to remember or “meet” that person. It was not that we were happy about death, but rather that we were happy about life and the headstones were simply a part of that.
Bob’s brother once commented that walking through a graveyard with us was the only time he had not been choked up at a family member’s grave, and that feeling good about the deceased person’s life replaced the feeling of loss he usually experienced. For me, a good obituary tells me about the person and his or her relatives, whereas a ho-hum obituary gives me pause about joining other souls in the land of milk and honey. On the other hand, I would rather learn that an ancestor died during a smallpox quarantine than read what has—sadly—become a very trite expression of “Joining his Heavenly Father in the light of eternal life.” On the other hand, a boastful obituary obviously written by the deceased might speak from the grave of his arrogance rather than of the virtues he attributed to himself in life. Honesty and humor can be found in genealogy, for sure.
If your immediate family, grandparents, and other relatives are local, or if you know where they grew up, then go to the library, strain your eyes, and look at microfiche, films, or digitized archives of old newspaper articles. Amazing stories hide in old papers—bits of details to track down and record for five cents and a tap of the print button on a reader. I never knew that Dad’s cousin’s wife was at one time a widow. Now I know of her loss, of her first husband having been shot down on a mission over Borneo, of how the family faced the parts of war the history books glossed over.
Forms and Web Sites
If you are going to trade online information or use another’s research, exercise caution. Most people doing family history are delightful, but a lot of information is out there for those who wish to gather it, no matter what their purposes. We have all heard the stories of "anyone being anyone" when it comes to computer correspondence. Would you tell a perfect stranger your name, email address, home address, birth date, social security number, and mother’s maiden name? I may be overly cautious, but I try to exchange information only about deceased family members.
Ancestry.com offers a vast collection of information, census reports, and links to sites that offer birth and death certificates. Rootsweb has a vast collection and is free to use: its search system for the Social Security Death Index is first rate. Ellis Island and Castle Garden Web sites offer access to many immigration records, but bear in mind that many an immigrant was intimidated into giving false information, and many names were mis-pronounced or misspelled. The Web site Find a Grave offers burial information and a bonus of photos of graves and/or people. The site for U.S. veterans likewise offers burial information that is easily accessed.
County library systems often have a family or local history center and may offer free access to pay-to-use sites such as Ancestry and online request-for-information forms: know or learn the county and state in which the event took place, type in the person’s name, and see what’s available. Some counties may offer online access to local records; with others, only a glimpse is given and an in-person visit will be necessary.
In England, there is the Free BMD (birth, marriage, death) site, and it’s in English. Sites in a foreign language can obviously be a problem unless you are fluent in the language of your ancestors. With luck, the Rootsweb site will offer some postings in English for the names you research.
Plastic Sleeves, Guidelines, and Expectations
Back to Life Today
Family research has given me friends with a link of blood, albeit many times quite diluted. I would never have met my fourth cousin once removed who lives abroad were it not for collecting my family’s history. I had no “Louisa” in my family tree, but the name struck a note in my thoughts, so I responded to a genealogy listing at an online Web site for the locale of the family. The original posting was more than two years old, but my cousin responded happily. Sure enough, now I have a Louisa in my tree and a very dear friend with whom I correspond daily.
As for Hannah and the laundry tips? My grandmother’s grandmother appeared in an English census report as being over 60 years old, living in proximity to several other older ladies, and taking in laundry as her means of support. What a life she must have had in those days before electricity. Who better to give me advice about how much starch to use on my pillow cases? What could better explain why I have always enjoyed doing laundry? It’s in my genes.
“Thank you, Hannah. Cheers!”
And, Alicia, that’s my batch of suggestions for doing a family history.
Hugs from your second cousin, Janette
Janette Gerber lives in Ohio with her husband, Bob, and their Weimaraner Jagger. Health and finances permitting, they love to travel to Mexico, where they can walk in peace, enjoy the charm, and breathe the great ocean air. Their son Matt, his young lady Melissa, and their vizsla Bo stop ‘round to visit. Janette bakes, does genealogy, makes soup, and . . . does laundry. She holds a BA from Kent State University, 1970. Yes, she was there during the shootings. From habit, en route to class, she turned left instead of right or would have found herself in an ugly situation. She also attended Universidad de las Americas in Mexico and the University of Hawaii. Almost all first and last names in the article have been changed to respect family privacy.
© 2008 Spring Mount Communications