Family Reunions: A Summer Tradition

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

By Karen Hendricks

Every year, the last Sunday of June, we head to the mountains surrounding Penn State’s Happy Valley area for my husband’s annual family reunion. It’s a tradition that has been upheld for as long as I’ve known my husband—I attended my first reunion before we were married, probably 25 years ago! Now our kids have grown up with this tradition—a great way to reconnect with family members and keep family ties intact.

My mother-in-law, one of 13 children, absolutely lives for family reunion day. It’s consistently one of the highlights of our summer as well. My husband is one of 40+ cousins, and now our children are some of the “next generation” of cousins. What a great tradition!


Gathering and getting ready to enjoy a family potluck luncheon

It seems like once a reunion has been established and planned for so many years, it is like a well-oiled machine that keeps on rolling. Here are some tips from our reunions that might inspire you to create or redesign your family gatherings:

  • Try to keep a consistent date every year
  • Also keep the location consistent from year to year. Our reunion was held at a family farm for many years, but now we rent a fire hall adjacent to a park with pavilions, playgrounds, ball fields, etc.
  • Share in the planning process by asking various families to oversee different aspects of the reunion.
  • For example, one family can send out postcard or email reminders; maintain email or physical addresses for family members.
  • Designate someone to organize activities/games for children. Our reunion traditionally ends with a piñata full of candy for the kids. We have some creative relatives who design and create a piñata from a cardboard box every year!
  • Another family organizes a traditional activity for “kids” of all ages: guessing jars filled with candy. The person who makes the closest guess to the amount of candy, without going over, wins the jar. Last year, we snagged about 6 jars between the 5 of us, and despite the rumors, we did not have any “inside information!”
  • Ask every family to bring a covered dish. Somehow it all works out and there’s always plenty of fried chicken, a variety of salads and side dishes, and plenty of desserts including the traditional Pennsylvania whoopie pies.
  • Ask every family to bring their own place settings.
  • Have one family prepare and bring large coolers of water, iced tea, etc.
  • Pass a hat every year to collect donations from each family, to pay for the next year’s expenses—rental of the venue, kid’s activities, candy, drinks, etc.
  • Although it’s good to plan activities, it’s also good to allow free time where you can talk and catch up with relatives. Isn’t that the main purpose of a “reunion?” 🙂
Pinata fun!

Pinata fun!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque... the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque… the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Our family takes the "guessing jar" game very seriously!

Our family takes the “guessing jar” game very seriously!

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the "winners"--kids of all ages.

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the “winners”–kids of all ages.

Until next year...

Until next year…

Please add your tips and suggestions in the “Comments” section below… we look forward to sharing your ideas and ultimately, strengthening family bonds!

Grafting Onto Your Family Tree

No matter how "rooted" your family tree is in blood ties --  there is always room to grow lush, beautiful branches that sprout from true friendships! Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

No matter how “rooted” your family tree is in blood ties — there is always room to grow lush, beautiful branches that sprout from true friendships! Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

*In collaboration with Chris Little

When I think about family trees, my mind naturally drifts to how different so many families look than they did in the generations of our parents and grandparents. The “faces” of families today are much more diverse – for reasons such as interracial marriage and building a family through adoption. Nowadays, a family is often comprised of different skin colors, ethnicities and cultures.

As I think about this concept further, I also consider what – or should I say who, really makes up a family tree. Is it biological members of a family – those with only true blood ties to the family line? Or, can a family unit be more than that? I wonder too … if family is also supposed to be about love for one other, and about taking care of one other, and about respecting one other – then what if that is not happening with certain so-called “family members.” Then, are they your family? And then further … are the special people in your life who “make up for” those sour relationships – who do love, care for and respect you, are they your family?

In other words, is a family bound by blood … or love?

I will be very bold and say that I do not consider every person in my blood-related family to be my family. There are a few members in my family who do not exhibit the traits I consider to be worthy of family; and therefore I avoid them as much as I can, and certainly do not let them know much about my life nor infringe upon it. Yes, I feel they are that toxic.

Aside from this, our son is adopted. If I thought that family was only about blood ties, I could not possibly have become his mother. In my opinion, a family is less about blood ties and more about a culture. The term culture encompasses ethnicity, racial identity, family structure, economic level, language, and religious and political beliefs – all of which profoundly influence a person’s development and relationship to the world, from birth and childhood on. And, therefore, also how they integrate into a family and take part in that family unit. So in my mind – and in my world, family is built by choice. The “family tree,” therefore, is not so much about where the trunk of the tree first took seed, or how the roots took hold in the ground – rather about the many thick branches and lush leaves that grew from that initial form.

It is so very difficult for me to understand how others cannot see beyond how a child comes into a family and simply acknowledge that it is a true blessing that the child is there. Perhaps, though, that is because I have experienced the love of those family members in my life with whom I share not one ounce of blood. When I look back on my childhood, I see clearly how in many ways those special people were more of a family to me in the true meaning and experience of the word than many of my “blood” relatives. Just as some people remark that they “don’t see race” (I laugh heartily when Stephen Colbert humorously states this on his television show) as a factor in how they interact with people from ethnicities other than their own, I don’t see how inherited physical and personality traits such as daddy’s eye color, mommy’s nose, and grandpa’s sense of humor are at all relevant in how a family lives and loves together.

The credit for my point of view on this subject really must go to my amazing mother. Unknowingly, she is the one who taught me about the beauty of building a family through adoption. My mother was an “only child” and since she grew up without siblings, she built her family through friends with whom she became close over the years. Therefore, my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side of the family were introduced into my life from those friendship bonds. And guess what? I was none the wiser. There was no talk of how “Aunt So-and-So isn’t my ‘real’ aunt,” nor lengthy explanations and justifications as to why “Mr. and Mrs. X” became my grandparents. I did not find this at all unusual – it just was.

My mother's dear friend who became my aunt holds my son when he was a baby.

My mother’s dear friend, who became my aunt, holds my son when he was a baby.

As an example, there were two wonderful married couples who were very good friends of both my parents, and who then became my aunts and uncles – Don and Louise, who were my godparents and have both since passed away; and Bob and Nancy, who continue to be such a delightful presence in my family’s life.

Two sets of other “relatives” in particular influenced my life in some very profound ways. I can tell you that I have definitely “inherited” my Aunt Mary Alice’s flair for entertaining masses of people in my home without breaking a sweat. Her grace and class, and the way her home made an open, welcoming haven for traveling family and friends no matter what else she had going on in her life, astounds me even to this day. She also imparted to me the importance of moisturizing one’s entire body with lotion daily – clearly a beauty regiment necessity!

I remember my mother once remarked to me about Mary Alice saying, “She saved my life,” as her eyes welled up with tears. You see, Mary and her husband, Bob, had become more than just my mother’s dear friends – they became her family when she had none. It is amazing to me how anyone upon hearing this story could continue to think that a blood tie alone to another person makes them family in the true meaning of the word!

A couple of years toward the end of my Aunt Mary’s life, I had the pleasure of flying to Colorado from time to time where my aunt and uncle lived. My dear Aunt Mary had been very ill for some time, and along with her physical ailments, had begun to show early signs of dementia. Although my Uncle Bob had weekly help in his home and was able to take breaks from caring for my aunt round the clock, I wanted to be present during this difficult time for them both whenever I could. I wanted to help too. I wanted to give something back – no matter how small, to the people who are forever bound to me through love. To my family.

As I stayed present with my Aunt Mary while Uncle Bob played cards with his friends and went to the movies; as I helped to feed and dress her; as I looked into her eyes and smiled; I was overcome with emotion. These people had become my true family and I was so much closer to them than many of those who share inherited traits with me. When my aunt passed away, my heart broke in places I didn’t know it could – I had lost a big piece of it.

I had a similar experience growing up with my grandmother and grandfather. Both of my parents’ fathers had died before I was born, and my paternal grandmother passed away after having seen me only once when I was just an infant. My maternal grandmother battled cancer throughout my childhood and passed away when I was in the ninth grade. So the grandparents I refer to were not the biological parents of either my mom or my dad – they were actually our neighbors.

When my mother returned to work after raising us, she turned to a retired woman in the neighborhood who babysat regularly for help with our afterschool care. To our family however, Edna and her husband, Septimus, became so much more – they became our grandmom and grandpop. I cannot put into words what a special part of my life they became, sharing everything from school days to birthdays. Septimus passed away when I was a freshman in college and when my beloved grandmother passed away in 2001, I felt as though a piece of my life had died too. I assure you that in all the years I was blessed to have her in my life, her homemade cookies, cakes and pies tasted no less delicious; and her presence in my life was no less special, because we were not related by blood.

My "family tree" continues ... my dear friend Alice has now become an aunt to my son!

My “family tree” branches out … my dear friend Alice has now become an aunt to my son!

Now the same need for family must be fulfilled for my son. He too is an only child, and my husband and I are not close with all of our immediate family members. So we are forming a family for him – growing and adding branches to our tree trunk. We have looked outside of our family members for those special relationships of aunts, uncles, and cousins. My best friends and their families have been very present in my son’s life. In fact, my son calls them aunts, uncles and cousins; and just as I did growing up, doesn’t seem to think anything of it. For they are the ones who make the effort to stay in touch across the miles, to send my son special gifts, to visit or host us when we visit them. They are the ones who support us in raising him, uplift us when we experience life’s challenges, and celebrate when we share our joys. They are our family and we treasure them!

The expression, “Blood is thicker than water,” is a misrepresentation of family life. It simply is not true. Although it is sad to say, when you go through a really difficult time in your life, you may well find that those still standing by your side at the end may not be your blood relatives!

In my blog, “Blood is Thicker Than Water and Other Misrepresentations of Family Life,” I share a story which illustrates further my thoughts about true family

My husband and I had been following the Camelot television series and during one episode, Arthur spoke to a man who was afraid of losing his daughter if she ever discovered that he was not her biological father. When Arthur spoke, my husband and I just looked at each other and smiled – finally, a script writer who truly “gets” adoption, who truly understands that families can be built by choice as well. To the man, Arthur said, “It’s not blood that ties you together; it’s the memories you share. Everything you taught her, everything you gave up for her – it’s your love, that’s what flows through her.”

Enough said!

Do you have a special person who has become family even though they are not related by blood? Are there people in your life you consider family members just as much as your biological relatives – and whom you would add to your family tree? Our OTMGR community would be interested to hear your story about those treasured relationships!

Bad apples and sad stories: When your family research uncovers dark secrets, tragic tales, or shady characters

Bad apples

By Chris Little

When I began researching my great-grandmother’s life, I kept running into a wall when it came to her father. She scarcely mentioned him in her journals, and the newspaper column announcing her wedding in 1908 noted that he was too ill to attend the ceremony. And then in 1909, when his wife and unmarried daughters moved from the Boston suburbs to live near his son in Seattle, he did not join them. For a long time I thought he had died that year, but I recently uncovered records indicating that he had been committed to a state mental hospital in 1909, and that he had lived there until his death in 1919. There is much I still don’t know about that situation, but I’ve applied to receive his medical records and they should be arriving shortly—I look forward to learning more about those last ten years of his life …. sort of. It’s bound to be a sad story, one I’ll have to read between the lines of an attending physician’s report.

Mine is a rather tame example, but it raises the question: We may love to think of our ancestors as paragons of fortitude, resilience, and unimpeachable character, but what do we do when our family research uncovers a tragic story, or a deep family secret, even an criminal character?

Most of the time it’s not a big deal. I mean, it’s too bad that my great-great-grandfather died in a mental institution, it really is, but to be honest his tale feels pretty remote to me—I don’t expect the story I piece together from his medical records to knock me off balance too much. I think it’ll be kind of interesting, actually.

But sometimes these old stories can unexpectedly uncover darker stories—tales of shady characters who may lurk in our family tree. These stories can be a bit unsettling. “Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage,” writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. Our ability to accept the bad apples in our family tree depends in part on how bad they were—and how far from us they hang among the branches. It’s important to maintain some perspective—they are not us, after all, and their deeds are not ours.

Still, in some cases our history can shed light on our present, and knowing even the darkest sides of our family histories can be healing. “Becoming aware of patterns of alcoholism, divorce, abuse or other misbehavior can make it easier for people living today to understand and change them,” writes Shellenbarger.

While sometimes we may stumble across these uncomfortable family stories without intentionally seeking them out, some researchers go looking for the black sheep in their family, their curiosity piqued, say, by a raised eyebrow or a loaded silence at last summer’s family reunion. Maybe you’ve picked up on some reticence on the part of your older relatives when someone mentions your wild distant uncle, for example, or maybe it’s always hush-hush when the topic of your great-grandfather comes up. In my own case, the marked lack of information about my great-great-grandfather, especially in a family so dedicated to preserving its history, is what initially made me suspect that something had happened to him that the others didn’t want to discuss. Suffice it to say that most families harbor some kind of secret, and sometimes those secrets beckon intriguingly to the intrepid researcher.

But be prepared: “Before you go digging for the truth, know what you’re getting into,” writes Lisa A. Alzo in Family Tree Magazine. “We’re tempted to look at our family histories through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not realistic.” Alzo provides helpful strategies for fleshing out your research, but she includes a proviso from Ohio genealogist Chris Staats: “As genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.”

What’s more, learning the truth behind an uncomfortable family secret brings with it a moral—and in some cases, legal—responsibility toward those involved and their descendants, especially if you intend to share your story publicly. You’ll want to think through the consequences of sharing your knowledge, whether with your family or the public at large, and resolve that if you choose to go public with the skeletons in your family closet, you do so with sensitivity and respect.

So, once you’re ready, here are a couple interesting resources for tracking down those ne’er-do-wells in your family tree:

Kimberly Powell describes tactics for searching prison inmate databases in this article. She writes here about tracking down infamous ancestors.

And in addition to her article quoted above, genealogist Lisa Alzo provides suggestions for tracking down your ancestors through the tragedies in their lives in this article for

Image: Some rights reserved by Public Domain Photos.

Wrinkles in Time: When your life echoes the past — and why that’s really awesome


By Chris Little

One of the most rewarding parts of researching and writing about my great-grandmother Ethel’s life is when my life seems to replay hers.  

A few months ago I spent an afternoon transcribing a stack of letters she had written to her youngest son. It was 1935, and Ethel and her husband were digging out of the Great Depression. They had moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Memphis, Tennessee, so that he could rebuild his landscape architecture practice in an area with a longer growing season. Things were looking up for Ethel, after the long years of uncertainty and real poverty, and she was immensely proud of her son, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was working to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy.

I spent an autumn afternoon reading through her letters—which were mostly responses to his letters describing life at sea. She had sprinkled her replies with homey little details about her shopping trips to town and the progress of her flower garden. As I transcribed the letters, I wove them together with selections from her unpublished memoir, in which she described these same years of settling in to a new home in a new part of the country. In her memoir Ethel remembered warm days alone with her dog while her husband was off at work, and long walks down her driveway, past the cotton fields bordering her little house in the country to pick up the mail—and how each day she’d hope to receive a letter from her son.

All that reading and transcribing was fun, right? But eventually I needed a break, so I grabbed an apple and called the dog and took a walk down my long driveway to the mailbox—maybe there would be a letter from my son, who’s away at his first year of college.

Somewhere along the driveway it dawned on me that this is what Ethel did. Yeah I know, not a big deal, right? Lots of people walk down the driveway to pick up the mail. But somehow it meant something to me that my life was overlapping hers just a little—we were both missing our sons and hoping to hear from them at the end of a long walk on a warm afternoon—it was a kind of wrinkle in time.

It happened again this winter, as I was transcribing Ethel’s journals from her 1909 honeymoon trip to Europe. Last spring I was fortunate enough to go to Italy for a couple weeks to see the principal sights in Venice, Florence, and Rome, so it was really fun to read Ethel’s descriptions of being in those same cities—in many cases standing in the same churches I did, and before the same paintings. I was amused to find that she was as unimpressed by St. Peter’s Basilica as I was: “We did not seem a part of it, nor did it convey to me a sense of repose or reverence or sanctity, but only wonder at the prodigious achievement,” she wrote, while I had similarly, albeit much less poetically, compared St. Peter’s in my own journal to “a glorified train station.” That said, we were both utterly bowled over by the Pantheon. Neither of us cared much for the tourist shops in Venice but could have lived in Florence for a good long time.

I don’t know whether this is trite coincidence or something important. But what I think is that spending time learning about Ethel’s life—where she went and what she did and what she thought about it—lends a depth of meaning to my own life, especially when I go to the same places and do and think the same things. It both compresses and lengthens time, telescoping her past into my present and, as I write a record of her life, extending both her life and mine generations into the future.

I don’t farm land that’s been in my family for generations, and I don’t live in the same house my ancestors lived and gave birth and died in, but I can see how being connected with your family in those ways can make you feel anchored in place and time, rooted in a story that doesn’t belong only to you but also, in one direction, to your ancestors, and in the other, to your children’s children. Since many of us are disconnected from the geographic roots of our family, researching our family history may be a great way to develop a sense of connection that can be meaningful, not to mention build resiliency and purpose. So let’s call that Reason No. 253 (give or take) why it’s a fabulous idea to research your family history.

Image: Some rights reserved by karlenj5.

Preserving Old Scrapbooks: Taking your grandmother’s baby pictures into their next century

SCAN Venetian Alley

By Chris Little

My great-grandmother Ethel was an intermittently devoted scrapbooker—in high school she clipped and saved newspaper articles detailing school activities and local events she’d attended. In the early years of her marriage she created beautiful scrapbooks of her honeymoon trip to Europe and her children’s infancies and childhoods.

SCAN Amalfi Coast

Today these scrapbooks are more than a century old! They’re in pretty good shape, but they won’t always be. I have been at a loss as to how to preserve them—what’s the best way to store them? And what about acids in the paper pages—were they slowly destroying the photographs? Meanwhile, I’d like to make good digital copies of the old photographs to preserve them—but the scrapbook pages are bigger than my scanner bed. Should I disassemble the scrapbooks, scan the images, and then reassemble them in archival-quality albums? That sounds like a risky proposition, and I’d lose all of Ethel’s charming inscriptions.


Enter my new Flip-Pal mobile scanner! Battery-operated and completely portable, the scanner is set up so that I can just place it over the scrapbook page (or the old family Bible record page, or any document I can’t drop onto my full-size scanner bed), press a button, and scan the image to an SD memory card for upload to my hard drive later.

The scanner’s software even digitally “stitches together” multiple images of a large scrapbook page into one image. Below are six scans I quickly took of one page as an example:

SCAN upper left SCAN upper right SCAN middle left SCAN center center SCAN lower right SCAN lower left

And here’s the final digitally “stitched” version of a scrapbook page my great-grandmother made celebrating the birth of her daughter, my grandmother:

scrapbook page

Yes, that top left corner is a little tight. When I do this for real I’ll loosen the string binding so I can get a better scan of each corner. Still, pretty awesome! So the Flip-Pal will take care of digitally preserving Ethel’s scrapbooks. But what about preserving the scrapbook itself?

Old scrapbooks are tricky because they typically contain so many different types of materials—everything from newspaper clippings to hair ribbons to pressed-flower corsages. These materials each have their own storage requirements, and some of them, like newspaper, are highly acidic and therefore can damage other materials in the scrapbook. And then there’s the glue, tape, and other adhesives that also can be hard on the items they affix to the scrapbook. Even worse, the paper pages of the scrapbook itself can be destructively acidic.

Storage. The key to stewarding old scrapbooks into their second century is keeping them cool, dark, and dry—no more than 65 degrees and 40 percent humidity. Temperature and humidity fluctuations cause scrapbook contents to absorb moisture and expand, then dry out and contract—increasing damage to bindings, adhesives, and the materials themselves. For this reason, beware of keeping your old scrapbooks in damp basements or attics with poor insulation. I just moved all of my great-grandmother’s scrapbooks to the guest room closet—it’s dark, cooler than the other rooms in the house, but pretty much stays the same temperature all year. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve got.

Rehabilitation? I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother’s scrapbooks are constructed of paper boiling with acid that’s slowly eating away at her photographs. My first impulse on discovering them was to deconstruct them and rearrange their contents into nice new bindings, on archival paper, with inscriptions copied in acid-free ink. The National Archives, however, cautions against doing that in most cases—and never before making good-quality photocopies or scans of each page. It turns out that the old black-paper scrapbook albums aren’t all that bad, and even disassembling those old self-stick albums we used to use can be tricky. The key here is to proceed with caution, and only after researching the alternatives. Sometimes the best way to preserve an old scrapbook is just to store it safely.

Want to learn more? Happily, there are many, many resources out there. For instance, the National Archives provides excellent guidance on preserving all kinds of family artifacts. The Library of Congress offers information on caring for and storing old photographs. And the Smithsonian Institute even provides a list of purveyors of archiving supplies! So do some reading and equip yourself to preserve your valuable family artifacts for your children and grandchildren. Then tell us about them!

Researching your family tree: How to get started

My mom, grandmother, and uncle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1953.

My mom, grandmother, and uncle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1953.

By Chris Little

Maybe you’ve got an old photograph on your piano of your mother when she was a girl, that day she took a trip with her family to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Or maybe you remember that great story your grandmother once told you about meeting your grandfather at a USO dance. I still remember my great-aunt telling me about working the air traffic control tower of her regional airport during World War II because all the men were deployed.

If we’re lucky, we’ve got a few of those half-remembered stories swirling around in the backs of our minds. And someday, if we’re even luckier, they’ll swirl from the back to the front and demand that we learn more about them. Let’s say that someday is today, and you’d like to start learning more about your family stories—and the people who starred in them. Where to start? Here are some strategies:

Go to the source. If you’re fortunate enough to have older relatives still living, pay them a visit! Or at least a phone call. Ask them to tell you anything they can about their youth, their parents and grandparents, and the times they lived in. What kind of car did they drive? What did they do for work during the Depression? What are some of their favorite memories of their childhood? Take a notebook—or better yet, a video or audio recorder. These stories are priceless! And if they have a stash of photographs or scrapbooks, ask if you can take a look.

Draft a tree. Start with your parents and grandparents. Note their dates of birth and death, when and who they married, and where they’re buried. How far back can you go? Don’t worry if you have more information for one branch of your family tree than another, and don’t worry if your tree is largely bare at this point. Filling it in is the fun part!

Go online. Now you can start exploring your family tree on—it’s easy and just as private as you want it to be. Again, start with what you know, then search for possible connections in preceding generations.

Go online some more. Try Googling the names of your grandparents, great-grandparents, and other ancestors as far back as you can go. There’s so much genealogical information online, and more being digitized every day, there’s no telling what you’ll turn up.

Scavenge for facts. Does your family have any old scrapbooks or photographs you can look through? Check inside the front cover of your grandmother’s old family Bible—there’s probably a trove of names and dates recorded there. Talk to your cousins—do any of them have material that could help fill in gaps in your tree?

Do your legwork. Visit the historical societies in the town(s) where your ancestors lived, and the libraries where their hometown newspapers may be archived. Stop in at the churches where they worshipped and ask if you can look for your ancestor in their records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Be sure to keep detailed records of everything you find—preferably photocopies.

Talk about it! Tell your friends and relatives what you’re doing—you never know where your next lead or research strategy might come from.

Educate yourself. Subscribe to genealogy blogs and other websites that offer research strategies. One of the fun blogs I follow is Out Here Studying Stones, whose author one day suggested searching for an ancestor’s passport application on I’d never thought of it! I knew my great-grandparents had been to Europe in 1909, so I searched for my great-grandfather’s passport application. Bingo! Within five minutes I had his childhood address and his hair and eye color—information I’d not been able to find previously.

Along those lines, here are a few sites that are helpful for getting started on genealogy research:

  • Here’s a nice free tutorial on Family Search, a site operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
  • Here’s another that explains how to use the National Archives for doing your research.
  • Here’s another, from the National Genealogical Society.
  • And here Family Tree magazine lists the top 40 genealogy blogs for 2013.

Share what you know. As you develop knowledge about your family and expertise about researching it, consider sharing what you’ve learned, whether in a blog or a self-published family history book. Giving people the opportunity to respond to your work will help you develop your skills—and could take your research off in new and fruitful directions.

You can start by letting us know some of your research strategies and successes, right here in the comment box below!

Researching a Family History: Why Bother?

My great-grandmother with her children, c. 1918

By Chris Little

As I mentioned a few months ago here, I’ve been working on a biography of my great-grandmother lately. It’s been a lot of work, but also deeply meaningful and awfully interesting—yet I’ve noticed that whenever I talk about the project, I find myself trying to explain exactly why I’m doing it. I mean, I spend a good part of every day up to my eyebrows in a dusty journal, or struggling to make out the ornate handwriting on a crusty envelope, or squinting through a magnifying lens at a faded black-and-white photograph. Then, when it’s time to get dinner ready and I return, almost literally, to the land of the living—the living aren’t all that interested! And if I have questions about the meaning or significance of something I learn in my research, virtually everyone I could ask is dead. In fact, I meet dead ends almost everywhere I turn. So … why am I doing this?

But then there’s the deeply meaningful part, which is what keeps me plugging away on this project. Here are some of the reasons why I find this family research so important and rewarding:

Paul 1910 in Mpls (hand on post)

My great-grandfather in 1910, age 27.

Honoring the past. In some fundamental ways, our ancestors weren’t that different from us. Sure, they may have worn bustles and corsets, but like us, they loved their children and wanted them to have happy, successful lives. Some undertook great sacrifices and trials to give their children safe and productive futures. When we take the time to learn about, understand, and record the lives of our ancestors, we honor them and deepen the meaning of the struggles and sacrifices they made for their children and their children’s children—for us. What better way to show our gratitude to them, than by making the effort to understand them?

Enhancing the present. My grandmother is no longer living, but I remember how my interest in her life created a great bond between us. She loved to tell me stories about her youth, about her mother (whose life I’m now researching), and about what she knew of the generations leading up to hers. I learned a lot from my grandmother, but more than that, I treasure the memories of those conversations and the pleasure they gave her. Taking the time to ask our elders about their lives and their memories of their parents and grandparents—and then listening deeply to their answers—presents our loved ones with a gift we all share.

Linking the past and future. Studies show that families that have a sense of connection across generations are stronger and more resilient—you can read my post about that here. How will you forge that connection between your grandparents and your grandchildren unless you know something about your grandparents’ lives—their stories and histories? Today, of course, my kids aren’t that interested in my research, but one day, I hope, they’ll be middle-aged adults themselves, perhaps with an interest in their past. Then they’ll be able to use my work to help them find their place in the march of generations.

To be honest, this work feels somewhat urgent to me, because if I don’t do it, who will? When it comes down to it, I’m the one with the journals and letters and photographs in my basement. No person still alive on this planet knows as much as I do about my great-grandmother. I feel a deep responsibility to preserve what’s left of her life in a way that will give others meaningful access to it. With the sense of responsibility though, comes a sense of privilege. I’m grateful for the opportunity!

My great-uncles, c. 1925

My great-uncles, c. 1925

Having some fun! Sure, sometimes it’s frustrating, when I can’t figure out what that scribble on the page is supposed to mean, or when I can’t find the address for some old relative’s home, or when I come up for air at the end of a work session with little progress to show for it …. but when I do find that birth year, make that connection, or otherwise develop an insight into my great-grandmother’s life, it’s like solving a puzzle, and who doesn’t love a puzzle?

I realize that not everyone has boxes of family artifacts lying around in their basements. Some might only have a couple of old unlabeled photos, maybe just the names of their grandparents. Don’t despair! There are all kinds of great resources online for researching your family history— being the biggest and best. Start with the names of your parents, and see what comes up! Then share some of your stories here—we’d love to hear them!