Category Archives: Heirlooms

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

holiday dinner

As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Ancestral Signatures in Genealogy

 

Hold Still Grandpa!  As you may have already experienced in your own research, some of your ancestors rarely stayed in one place.  They migrated to new countries, moved from county to county, or the lure of the plains of the open West was too much to resist.  If you are fortunate, you can identify two families as the same if you find church records, obituaries, county histories, or deed records that state that the ancestor had been “late of…” somewhere you knew he was.  But if those records cannot be found, then what?

You may find some success in connecting migrating family by collecting your ancestors’ signatures.  Remember to make a citation of where each signature was taken, when it was taken, and under what circumstances.  Let’s see an example of signatures above.

In the picture above, how many men do you find named John/Jonathan Lewis?  All of these signatures were taken from men who lived sometime in Garrard County, Kentucky, from about 1800 to 1830.  Do you see more than three signatures?  Now compare that with the image below.

 

So many men named John!  Do you agree with the analysis?  I believe there are seven distinct signatures for seven different men.  What about number three, why include that?  It is a clerk’s copy of a “signature” from a deed, which means that the document I saw was not the original, but a handwritten copy by the county clerk.  Clerks will “sign” for the ancestor, but is rarely the ancestor’s actual signature.  Why include the clerk’s copy of number three?  The answer is that now you know that this man named Jonathan Lewis can be distinguished from the others because of his illiteracy.

When looking for ancestral John Hancocks, try these ideas:

  1. Search a variety of records.  The records above came from many different sources including deed records, marriage bonds, original wills, and chancery (equity) records.  Try also: military pensions and bounty lands, draft registrations, oaths of allegiance, coroner’s reports with jury signatures, voter registrations, court bonds, backs of photographs, letters, journals, marriage licenses, death certificates (signatures of the informants), occupational records, stocks and bonds, flyleafs in books, yearbooks and autograph books, family bibles, and many more.
  2. Try a variety of locations.  I mentioned that all these men lived at some time in Garrard County, Kentucky, but that isn’t where I found all of their signatures.  As they migrated to nearby counties, visited state courts, or moved west, I followed their migrations and picked up signatures along the way.
  3. Seek out records of family and friends.  Your ancestor may not be indexed by name in the record of an in-law or neighbor, but the record itself may contain your ancestor’s signature as a witness or bondsman.  You have to love those ancestors who worked as the court clerk, and personally signed every deed in the county book!
  4. Be aware of age and language differences.  Your ancestor’s signature can change over time.  The confident hand of a newly married 25 year-old man in a marriage bond may change from the shaky pension application for bounty land of the seventy year-old man.  Literate immigrant ancestors accustomed to the Cyrillic alphabet characters may be less “literate” in the Americanized Roman alphabet.  Watch for phonetic name spelling changes, and newly adopted Americanized names.
  5. Not all ancestors signed with an X.  A few of our predecessors were more creative with their “mark.”  While many illiterate persons signed with a simple X, some had a more personal notation, such as a specialized cross or first letter of their name.
  6. Check out a book on handwriting.  Your local library has books on handwriting comparisons if you are not sure you have a match between two names.  If that doesn’t work, ask your genealogical buddy for an extra set of eyes, or hire a handwriting expert.

Our ancestor’s lives were as complex, busy, and emotional as ours today and they left their marks in so many places.  Our job is to follow their trail and pick up those crumbs that together become the genealogical bread of life.  Tell us about a brick-wall breakthrough that you’ve had using signatures while following your ancestors through time.

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.

11 Creative Ways to Preserve Your Family’s History

 

Have you been thinking about preserving your family’s history, but aren’t sure where to start? Here are 11 fun and creative ideas that will motivate you to kick the project off today:

  1. Turn Photo Albums Into Memory Books. Instead of simply slapping your photographs into an album, create a memory book by including a brief story about each picture and identifying everyone in it. Viewers, especially future family members, will be grateful for the explanations of who’s who and what they’re doing. Be sure to use acid-free products so that your memory book will endure for many years to come.
  2. Create Heirloom Jewelry. Jewelry doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. You can turn everyday pieces into heirlooms by linking each to a specific interest, moment, or event in your life. Think about collecting charms for a bracelet or adding a photo of a special relative to a locket.
  3.  Grow Family Memories. Are you an avid gardener?  Whether you grow prize-winning American Beauty roses or the ubiquitous zucchini, you can encourage and pass the love of gardening on to the next generation. Share some seeds or a cutting from a plant with a family member. Bake or cook with a young relative, using the bounty of your garden.
  4. Share the Love of Food. Write out favorite family recipes—Grandma Sarah’s corn bread, Aunt Mary’s turkey stuffing, your mother’s prize-winning strawberry shortcake—on pretty recipe cards. Or collect them in a book.  Add your memories of the times these dishes were served and savored and what made them so special to you and your family. The collected recipes and stories would make a wonderful gift for a newly married relative or young adult setting up a new home.
  5. Document Family Heirlooms. Do you own something that once belonged to an ancestor? Does that item hold great meaning to you? Ensure that future generations know its history by documenting it. Write down everything you know about the piece, including how it came into the family and who has owned it over the years. This is a great way to connect your descendants with the past. Be sure to keep the written record with the item. Check out the Heirloom Registry for an easy way to record the items.
  6. Set up a Family Photo Gallery. Are vintage photographs of your ancestors lying in dusty shoeboxes or hiding in old photo albums? Bring them out into the open. Local craft shops sell a variety of frames at a reasonable cost, and for just a little investment of time and money your gallery will generate interest, curiosity, and pleasure for your family members. Be sure to use acid-free matting and hang pictures away from the sun’s destructive light.
  7. Craft a Comforting Memorial. If you can thread a needle you can create a beautiful tribute to a deceased family member by making a teddy bear or quilt from a shirt or other item of clothing that they wore. This can provide great comfort and solace to others following the loss of a loved one. And the newly crafted item becomes a family heirloom that continues to tell the story of that family member’s life.
  8. Use Technology to Tell Your Story. Using video or audio recording equipment to preserve stories and memories is easier than you might think. First, make a list of stories you would like to talk about. Then set up the video or audio recorder, make sure to eliminate any competing sounds (e.g., ticking clocks, humming refrigerator), and tell your stories. If you prefer to focus on pictures, there are plenty of computer programs that can help you easily create a slide show from your family photos. Looking for some help? The friendly staff at Reel Tributes is just a phone call away.
  9. Proudly Display Family Documents. My husband’s great-great-grandfather was the justice of the peace in Hardin County, Kentucky, after the Civil War. Fortunately, his Official Certification from the state of Kentucky was passed on to my husband. I had it framed, and this bit of my husband’s family history is now displayed on a wall in our home—next to my husband’s honorary discharge papers from the U.S. Army.
  10. Write an Ethical Will. Just as a Last Will and Testament is a tool to pass on the “stuff” of life, an ethical will is a tool to pass on personal beliefs, values, life lessons, and blessings. Ethical wills have been with us for more than 2,000 years; authentic and readable ethical wills dating back to 1200 A.D. are still valuable for their literary content. This document has been found to be a tremendous blessing to family and friends.  Check out www.ethicalwill.com for information on how to write your own ethical will.
  11. Engage the Younger Generation. Kids have stories to tell as well. Ask your children or grandchildren what is important in their lives right now and record what they say, either with pen and paper or with an audio or video recorder. Not only will you learn a lot, but future generations will also be interested in what they have to say.

However you choose to preserve your family’s history, begin now.  Don’t let good intentions be just that. Cherish the role of preserver of memories for your family. You won’t regret it for a second.

Do you have other creative ideas to share? We, at Reel Tributes, would love to hear them.

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.