Family Histories & Other Tales:

A Letter to My Cousin

by Janette Stender

Dear Alicia …
You wrote to say “Thank you” for the family history album of the Dworakoska line of our family and to ask how it was possible to accumulate so much information. You were curious to know how you might go about doing the same for your husband’s family. Your questions took me back a dozen years and reminded me that the 200 pages of information in that album were merely a quarter of what has been accumulated.

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?

Be Prepared
Doing a family history has become very popular these days, and many local libraries and adult education organizations offer courses in genealogy, in tracing a history of ancestors and family. Although there is no one right way to do it, I would recommend that you take a course, or even one class, to give you some tools for the task. Ideally, it will be a sound and comprehensive course that will acquaint you with the software available for recording information. It will give you a listing of sources available locally, on-line, and perhaps abroad. It will offer you paper forms and suggestions for filing systems. It will do everything that in the beginning I did not do but have learned along the way. There is no magic wind that blows bits of paper with scribbles into tidy, spiral-bound notebooks! It takes work, curiosity, and organization to put together such an album.

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.

Getting Started
Begin with what and who you know for sure. Include the basics about immediate family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins: birth dates and places, marriage dates and places, death dates and places, and burial information. And, yes, that does mean that you should document what you know or thought you knew by using birth or baptismal certificates, wedding invitations or announcements, death certificates, obituaries, and even photos of graves. Each source can give you a wealth of information! You may be surprised in the search. In times past, not every child lived past infancy or into adulthood. You may think that a grandmother was one of three children when in fact she may easily have been one of six.

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
Your computer may come with a pre-installed genealogy program, or it may at least offer the forms that you can use to get started on your project. Literally thousands of Web sites offer access to forms, programs, or sources of information. I can’t endorse any of them in particular. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has a free program; it was the first I used. Like all programs, it has advantages and disadvantages. I have used two forms of Family Tree Maker, again with good and not-so-good results. A third cousin in England uses a beautiful program, that produces a great finished product, and I may try it one day if I can remember the name of it. Some are wonderful sources, some are a matter of “garbage in, garbage out,” and some are a mix of both. Some are free to use, such as one found at the library or at the Church of Latter Day Saint Family History Centers, and some require a fee. There are also publishing companies that specialize in genealogy, Lulu being one that caught my attention. Look around first: Some publishers require specific computer formats in order for them to publish a volume.

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. 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
With a nod to Johnny Depp’s comment that “the Pirate Code was not laws but more like guidelines,” I have some suggestions to give you that are just that—my way of doing things:
1. Date everything you record or print. That date will tell you which page or note is the most recent version, which outline of the family lineage is the most thorough, correct, and up to date.
2. Put all certificates and originals in plastic sleeves. This way, you will not accidentally give away your original and be left with a copy of a copy of a copy. Using plastic sleeves also means that you will not have to deface a lovely old original by punching three holes in for inclusion in a binder, and you will not misplace or scrap something important simply because it looked like just a piece of paper.
3. Try to find one piece of documentation for every person added to the tree. This is just my personal guideline, something that makes me feel that I am learning about family, all family. Each item is a proof of life, a statement that someone has lived and been part of the family.
4. If you have been able to identify an old photograph, then scan it, and at the time of the scanning, add the person’s name and even additional information such as date or place to the front of the scan of the picture. It’s fine to keep the original in pristine condition, but nothing beats having a picture with the identification on the front where it can be seen in records. I say this as a person who spent months looking at one album, trying to sort out names and family groups of people who lived in the 1800s. When I had four family groups identified from the album, I scanned the images, put names on the scans, and then used those scans on a brief biographical page for each family. Each page—with identified pictures—is now a story unto itself in my records. For another lady, I simply put her picture on the top of one page, and put a size-reduced copy of her death certificate at the bottom.
5. Don’t distribute everything you find to others. OK, so not everyone in the tree was up for sainthood. There is no need to ignore a fact, or to lie about it, or, conversely, to broadcast it. If someone slipped up during the 1960s, my records might have the documented story from the newspaper coverage, but that clipping just might not make the spiral-bound edition sent hither and yon, especially if the subject or his or her immediate family members are still living. Try to respect peoples’ sensibilities, without resorting to dishonesty. In fact, try not to circulate too much personal information about living people. Do not leave family members open to identity theft. Watch what you post on the wild wild Web, as not everyone out there is, well, up for sainthood.
6. Leave adequate margins. If at some point you plan to scan everything to send out en masse or to distribute as a printed booklet, then as you create the file, lay out the text or scan onto pages with 1-1/2" margins. By doing that, you will save yourself—or someone else—a lot of time spent at a copy machine reducing images so that text or pictures won’t be damaged during the punching and/or binding process. You may even want to look at a Web site for a genealogy publishing concern to see how they would like the pages formatted. Who in her right mind wants to go through reformatting an entire collection that has already been done once . . . or twice . . . before?
7. Begin to collect a family history by writing to relatives. I sent out a form that asked for names of parents, birth dates, education levels (and so on) to any relatives I was in touch with. Keep in mind that not everyone will be willing to give out personal information, so be careful about the details you request—be realistic. Do ask for help identifying subjects of photos. This will give faces to names in your records. And, do not expect every person you contact to jump at the chance to help with your project. A distant cousin may have a photo that you could only dream about, perhaps a great great grandfather standing by his turnip patch in Bohemia in the 1800s. It might take two minutes to scan it and send it to you . . . and he may just never get around to it. Be patient, ask again, but do not bet the ranch that he’ll send it. Just dance and sing a happy song throughout the house if one day it shows up in your mailbox.

Back to Life Today
For me, doing a genealogy has been a lovely, rewarding pastime that I can accomplish at any pace and to any degree of depth. It has given me a sense of family with a background that is entertaining, and it has shown me facets of history that interest me. It has enriched everyday life with depth, thought, and skills. Granddad’s only living brother shared stories with his son, who in turn shared them with me. Those amazing tales from abroad would have been lost forever were it not for family research and interest.

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 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.

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