Category Archives: Advice

My Grandmother’s Writing Desk: Made of wood and memories

 

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother Frances’ desk.  She was fond of it and I have many memories of seeing my grandmother sitting on the stool in front of her desk and writing Christmas and birthday cards to her family.

My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  I remember her sitting at her desk, opening up her journal and making little notes in it – notes about the births, weddings, deaths and divorces in our family.  She also wrote notes about a particularly good game of bridge she had played or having the best score in a golf match.  She wrote get-well cards to her friends and planned trips to see her out-of-town family or friends, all while sitting at her desk.  She paid her bills and wrote donation checks to her local SPCA and to many other charities in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I was just five years old, I remember sitting at my grandmother’s desk. This desk was always paired with a round heavy stool.  I have happy memories of lying on top of the stool, spreading my arms out wide and spinning myself around and around until I was sick.

One interesting thing about this desk is the many hiding places that it contains.  I still gain pleasure from the idea that things can be hidden in the desk in plain sight but invisible to someone unfamiliar with the desk’s design. The hidden compartments are handy places to hide cash, love letters or perhaps even a secret diary – don’t tell anyone, though!

This desk also comes complete with a delicate, tiny brass key, which still works. 

 

 

As I recall being told, my grandfather bought this desk for my grandmother sometime between 1930 and 1940.  My grandmother used it every day until just a few weeks before her death. She died on February 3, 2008 at the age of 105.  After my grandmother’s death, my aunt sent the desk to me by freight truck all the way from San Francisco to Virginia.

When I received the desk, my first thought was to give it a good polishing.  I spent an afternoon cleaning and buffing the old desk.  Surprisingly, during the process, I found some things that had slid under the drawers and behind several of the compartments – a piece of carbon paper, instructions on how to do tubular crocheting, my grandmother’s 1955 Certificate of Members in the American National Red Cross, a recipe for baked fish and a few old canceled checks. Most pieces even show my grandmother’s beautiful and flowery penmanship.

Sometimes I think about having the desk refinished, but then I tell myself that all of the patina and provenance that goes along with the desk would surely disappear in the process.

I don’t think I will ever have my grandmother’s desk refinished. Today, as I look at the writing surface of the desk, I can still see faint traces of my grandmother’s handwriting in the wood’s surface. Her story and the love she had for her family is engrained in the surface of the desk she used for over sixty years.

I am so very grateful to now be in possession of my grandmother’s old desk along with all of its precious memories.  I hope that one of my daughters will want to keep this desk after I am gone.

Do you own a piece of furniture that is considered a family treasure and that holds memories for you?  I’d like to suggest that you write those memories down.  Future generations will enjoy knowing the history of that very special family heirloom.

Planning Your Genealogical Research Trip

We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines.  When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip.  It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”

One of the keys to success in any research is planning.  If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.

  1. Review the 0nline catalogs.  Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority.  Often you can search by a location or surname.  Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs.  Keep looking.
  2. Make a To-do List.  In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be.  Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
  3. Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays.  Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car.  I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
  4. Read the Records structure.  Every archive arranges their information differently.  Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going.  Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
  5. Gather supplies.  What can you take into the building?  Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera?  What are the photocopying policies?  How much?  Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves.  Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled.  Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack?  Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera.  Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
  6. Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day.  In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility.  Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
  7. Make a Plan B.  Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more.  If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area?  Cemeteries are rarely closed.  The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
  8. Be open to happy accidents.  On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon.  I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B.  In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings.  I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open.  As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help.  I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office.  It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself.  We got to talking and he showed me the deed records.  He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted.  I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county.  He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?”  There was my ancestor, named on the map.  I love happy accidents!

The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?

Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!

Confessions of a Census Enumerator

Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated?  People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another.  You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try.  The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!

In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census.  Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have.  Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.

  • It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail.  If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call.  Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby.  Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in.  Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal.  Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
  • Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time.  If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
  • Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available.  I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
  • Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success.  We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly.  The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents.  The women came in with the most results.  Why?  Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time.  People are wary of opening the door to strange men.  Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating.  People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
  • Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods.  First, we already know our way around.  Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived.  I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home.  Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me.  How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
  • I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me.  They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it.  Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
  • There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized.  Big ones.  It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
  • Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation.  My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
  • It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
  • I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear.  Enough said.

So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side.  For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.  Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.

Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”

Love and Marriage: Genealogical Records of Walking Down the Aisle

Marriage records are some of the earliest records available in the United States that offer a wealth of genealogical gems.  They may include the ages of the bride and groom, their residences, and sometimes a parent or other relative’s name.

Modern marriage records can help us understand earlier records.  If you are married, think about the variety of records leading up to the wedding.  Did you go to the courthouse to apply for a license?  Was a notice of the engagement, or of the wedding placed in a local newspaper?  Were you married at a church, and did the church note it in their records?  If married at the church, the pastor/priest/officiator was required to report his or her completion of that ceremony to the local court.  If married civilly, was there a record of the wedding at the courthouse separate from that first license you applied for?  Did the court and/or church give you a private certificate, suitable for framing?  Did you send out invitations or annoucements? Were photos taken at your wedding?  Did friends or relatives write or blog about the celebration?  Looking at all these situations, we can see at least eight different types of records created about the event.  Think of your ancestors’ weddings in much the same way: if a record of the marriage isn’t in one place, it may be in another.

Here’s a very brief review of the types of marriage records that may be available in a variety of places:

State and Local Records

Marriage records are not federal records.  They have always been maintained and governed by the county or state in which they occured.  Investigate the laws regarding marriage in your ancestor’s state and time period.

  1. Consents:  Written parental permission for a child to be married, especially if underaged.  Sometimes these are found to confirm that the child is of age.
  2. Marriage bonds:  A financial contract to hopefully avoid litigation of the marriage is nullified.  Usually signed by the groom and a male representative of the bride’s family.
  3. Marriage banns: Church declaration or posting of an intended marriage, to give the congregation an opportunity to oppose the marriage if there is a just cause to prevent it, i.e. the groom has another wife in the next county.
  4. Applications:  The application to marry often asks the bride and groom about ages, birthplaces, parent’s names, and previous marriages.  Check to see how early these were used in the county you’re searching.
  5. License: Court approval of the marriage application.  These are often found at the bottom of the application in most pre-printed court books.  Note that the date of marriage application or license is not always the same as the date of the wedding!
  6. Minister’s Returns:  Sometimes these are separate reports from ministers or Justices of the Peace that a marriage ceremony was preformed.  The clerk should be noting these at the bottom of the marriage application/license.  If there is no return it may indicate that 1) the marriage did not occur, or 2) the minister didn’t make it back to the clerk to report.  If there is no return, you may need to look for other indications of co-habitation after the date of the license.
  7. Divorce Records:  When couples break up, they make a lot of records.  Early divorces were granted only on the state level, but were overseen later by county courts.  Check Chancery and Equity records, or ask the clerk of the court.

Church Records

  1. Minister or Church Clerk books:  Church records vary from church to church and often from one minister to another.  The marriages may be recorded together, chronologically, or mixed in with other rites, such as baptism or burials.
  2. Church minutes:  If there are no records of marriages, check the minutes for listings of members.  Spouses may be referred to when they join or move.

Newspapers

  1. Wedding Annoucements:  For my own grandparents, I found multiple news articles.  There were at least two listings of bridal showers, the pre-wedding announcement, the post-wedding announcement, and an entire article on who attended and what they wore with a photo of the happy couple looking dubiously at a wedding present they’d just unwrapped.  Thank goodness for small town newspapers!  Don’t forget to check for those silver anniversary announcements too.

Private Family Records

The wonderful thing about family records of weddings is that they are so diverse and can be held by so many different family members.  Get to know second and third cousins who may have inherited unique memoribilia.  These may include:

  • Invitations
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Photos
  • Journals and Letters
  • Family Bibles

Take some time to “walk down the aisle” with your ancestors and search for their marriage records. Find out more by reading up on early marriage practices and customs.  If your ancestors were of African-American descent, be aware that sometimes those records were kept separately.  If your ancestor participated in the Revolution, War of 1812, or Civil War, look for evidences of marriage produced by widows and heirs in pension applications.  For more information, read the wonderful article by Johni Cerny and Sandra H. Luebking, “Research in Marriage and Divorce Records” in the Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.  You can also check for online guides about marriage records that are specific to time periods or countries at FamilySearch.org.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Letters to a Little Girl from the White House

My mother married my stepfather in April 1963.

I was eleven years old at the time.

But let me back track a bit.

In 1962, my stepfather-to-be came to San Francisco to attend a professional conference.  A girlfriend of my mother’s introduced my mother to my stepfather and cupid’s arrow stuck hard and fast.

Within two year’s time, my mother and I moved from San Francisco, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and life changed dramatically for both of us.

Throughout the long months before flying to Maryland, my stepfather wrote me many letters.  Each letter was a personal introduction of sorts.  In the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl I surely didn’t know what to expect from the man who would soon marry my mother and become the only father I had ever known.

Through the letters, he slowly revealed the kind of person he was and the kind of father he would be to me through his frequent and loving letters, which were either typed or handwritten and mailed directly to me.

He told me that he had a fifteen-foot sailboat and was fond of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that he wanted to teach me how to sail.  He told me that he was from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his family still lived there and I would eventually meet them all. I knew he had an artistic side because he often included funny pictures and poems in his letters, all for my enjoyment.  He told me that he wanted to teach me how to ice skate in the winter months on the frozen canals in Washington, DC.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic and asked about my religious upbringing. He valued a strong and traditional education and his work caused him to travel widely.

But there was one thing that really stuck out about these letters. They were written on White House stationery.

 

At that time, my stepfather was acting as legal counsel for the Kennedy Administration. Several of the letters even mention my stepfather’s personal interactions with JFK.

December 16, 1962

By the way, during this past week, the President held his Christmas Party for his staff.  I shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas.  During the evening, Caroline and one of her small friends came down the stairs to say hello to everybody. I sure wish you had been here to enjoy all the fun. 

Many of the specific memories have faded for me. My stepfather, now 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease.  As I hold my stepfather’s letters in my hands, I feel somehow connected to him again, and to my childhood, and to the love and affection that was so well expressed on sheets of paper.

Do you have family letters stored in shoeboxes up in your attic or on a shelf in your bedroom closet? When was the last time you read those letters and simply remembered days gone by?  What do those letters mean to you?  Please write and tell us. We’d love to hear from you.