Category Archives: Heirlooms

Why should I keep a journal, or make a film about my life?

Many years ago I began keeping a daily journal about my life’s activities.  Over the years I have found it interesting to go back and see what I was doing, feeling, and thinking years ago. Recently, while reading an old journal entry, I read about a heated disagreement I had with a friend. With hindsight I realize now I had acted petty and immature.  It made me appreciate that I’ve done some growing up since then!

A few days ago it dawned on me that many of the reasons for journaling could also be applied to the value of making a personal history film or video biography.

As in journaling, a personal history film provides you with the opportunity to:

  1. Document the stories of your life – the good, the bad and the ugly!
  2. Record the great things that have happened to you and to your family over the years.
  3. Record how you have felt about the world around you.
  4. Record your personal and professional achievements (and disappointments).
  5. Record hopes, dreams and beliefs – for yourself and for your family.  Learned life lessons and wisdom become clearer with age.
  6. Record meaningful personal and family events to pass down to future generations – even those yet unborn!
  7. Provide an opportunity to express gratitude for the opportunities and things you have.
  8. Record significant events in the world around you and how they have affected you personally (such as WWII, social and global financial changes, etc.)
  9. Provide an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate the experiences of your life.
  10. Share relevant stories of the past for the benefit of future generations.

Everyone has a life to celebrate.  Lessons learned, problems solved, tragedies survived, observations made, creativity expressed and maturity gained.

For whatever stories about your life you’d like to share, consider a journal or a personal history film in 2013.

The annual letter: A cherished family tradition

Twenty-four years ago I decided to enclose a one-page personal letter with each one of our Christmas cards.

My goal: to share with our family and friends the highlights of the year’s activities.  Fifty or so people have received our letters and the response from them was positive. We, in turn, received many interesting and creative Christmas letters.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to keep a copy of each year’s Christmas letter.  Every year I place the newest letter in a Christmas green binder for safekeeping. This year as I read those letters once again I realized that the letters give a pretty good history of the highlights of our family’s activities over the last twenty-four years. Little did I know just how precious these letters would become as the years have passed by.

In 1988, the letters recall our being stationed in Nicosia, Cyprus and living a cautious and careful life of an American Embassy family. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 departing Heathrow Airport was bombed while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland.  One of our own security officers was on board the flight.  Several days later, my husband and I attended the memorial service to honor this young man at the US Embassy in Nicosia.  After this tragic event our ambassador ordered that Americans should not meet in large groups for fear of additional attacks.  As a result my two daughters’ school Christmas parties were canceled and Americans did not gather that year for their traditional Christmas party at the Marine House.

In 1990, we were living outside of London and my young daughters attended a British school for two years. Before leaving England, my friends gave a party in my honor.  The party took the form of British High Tea – a dressy afternoon event where fancy finger foods and punch were served.  Within a week’s time, we were back in Virginia and attending the Prince William County Fair.  By the end of that day we had seen pigs, sheep and cows and even watched a truck pull.  I thought to myself, what a change of lifestyle! In the next years our two daughters grew from being little girls with pronounced British accents to young and independent American women. From learning to ride their bicycles, to working on Algebra and French homework, to taking drivers ed and scaring the daylights out of their parents, and then going off to college— it is all there on the pages of our family’s Christmas letters.

Thirty-eight years ago, it was just my husband and me. Today, our family has grown to eight people.  The lives of all eight of us are recounted on the pages of those Christmas letters.

As I read these letters I realized how many things had slipped from my memory. And what a shame it would have been if those family memories had been lost forever.

And that reminds me…I’d better get writing this year’s letter.  Our friends and family are waiting and my Christmas green binder has an empty page protector marked “2012”.

How about you?  Do you write a yearly letter? How do you record the history of your family?  If you don’t, perhaps 2012 is the time to start. Enjoy! 

Your Genealogical Wish List for the Holidays

As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too.  And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.

What is your wish-list?  I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others.  Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.

  1. Subscriptions.  So many business are feeding our need for records.  I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records.  This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join.  Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
  2. Conferences.  I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied.  I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors!  If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013.  On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well.  But let’s face it – its in VEGAS!  I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
  3. Books.  I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it.  Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
  4. Stories.  It is crucial to keep stories alive.  Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality?  Where’s the voice?  My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives.  I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story.  Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice!  Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
  5. Time.  My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons).   This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from.  What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house?  So I think one thing I would really like is my own “vacation” to work on my family history.   I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors.  Now I want to walk where they walked.  This year: New York.  Next year: Scotland!
  6. Answers.  I would like to ask a favor of the universe.  Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents.  I am stuck!  Have you felt this way?  I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it.  In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me.  So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all.  More family.

What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself.  The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family.  Happy Holidays!

What’s the best way to preserve my family history?

As a personal historian, I often get asked the basic question: How can I preserve my family’s history? While the question seems simple, there are many ways to answer this.

In this post, I will present a few of the options. That way you can understand what’s available and explore the best fit for you and your family.

Oral history: recording your voice

To begin, simply turn on a digital audio recorder and start to recall memories of the past.  This first recording session could be as simple as your telling your favorite family stories.  You could record memories of your mother’s great prowess in the kitchen, or your father’s antics growing up.

There are many books that can guide you through this process, providing questions and topics that you might like to speak to (see the list of recommended reading at the bottom of this post). You could also hire a professional – a personal historian to bring his or her expertise to the project.

Writing: jotting down your memories

Grab a pen and paper (or your laptop), and let the memories flow. Some of you will find this an easy and enjoyable task, others won’t. Writer’s block is a common problem, so don’t worry if you have a hard time getting started. Recording your memories takes determination and discipline. To help guide you, there are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ books that provide prompts and questions to answer.  These kinds of books can be infinitely helpful in creating content. One of our favorites is Our Family Tree and Album  – Edited by Samone Bos.

Looking for more inspiration? Find a local memoir writing class, and attend faithfully.  The class will help you with written self-expression, and the discipline needed to follow through with your story.  By the end of the class you will be well on your way to a full-fledged memoire.  These classes are typically offered through continued adult education programs at local community colleges, adult community centers, and local libraries.

Artwork: creating memories

Have you enjoyed scrapbooking over the years? Have you made a ‘shadow box frame’ containing personal memorabilia, which belonged to an ancestor?  Do you sew custom-made story quilts? Does your home have a family photo gallery? Artwork like this adds character to a home, and creates strong connections from one generation to another.  For the artistically inclined, a family history project is hard to beat.

Film: producing a multimedia experience

In beautiful high-definition, film is quickly becoming the go-to medium for personal history. Films can beautifully document a life story.  Regional accents, facial expressions, and personal recollections can all be captured on film, along with still photographs, family movies, and other personal mementos. Films also incorporate a musical score, to add drama and emotion to the story.

Click here to view some sample family history films.

This is just a short overview of some of the options you have in preserving your family history. I hope I have fueled your desire to kick off the project. You have a story to tell. Why not start today?

The following is a short bibliography of how-to books on the subject of personal history preservation:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Creative Journal Writing – The Art and Heart of Reflection by Stephanie Dowrick

Touching Tomorrow – How to Interview Your Loved Ones to Capture a Lifetime of Memories on Video or Audio

Legacy – A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Personal History by Linda Spence

You Don’t Have To Be Famous – How to Write Your Life Story by Steve Zousmer

Learn more about Ethical Wills at http://www.ethicalwill.com

Check out the Association of Personal Historians’ web site for more information on personal history preservation.

Finding History in Unexpected Places: The House at 167 Corona

My grandparents Raymond and Frances Mackin married in September 7, 1929, at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, California. By the end of the very next month the Stock Market collapsed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.

Frances, in her memoir, recalled:

“On returning from our honeymoon in Los Angeles, we rented a pleasant apartment on Washington Street, near Fillmore.  In less than a year we moved to a larger apartment on Balboa near 21st Avenue.  We were living there when my daughter, Catherine was born.  The landlady wasn’t very happy with us for having a child so we soon moved to a third floor flat on 43rd Avenue between Cabrillo and Fulton.  The stair climbing there was too much for me so we rented a small house on 40th Avenue near Fulton.  Roger and David were born while we lived there.  Our landlord was a very nice man, whom we seldom saw, and we were greatly surprised when for some reason or other he gave us his equity in the house.  This amounted to about $3,500 – a nice sum for 1935.  We soon sold the house on 40th Avenue and bought a larger one at 167 Corona Street in Ingleside Terrace.  Frannie was born there in 1939.” 

The rest of the story

You may be wondering how this information came to my attention.  My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  She loved to reminisce and share her life experiences.  It was this love that fueled her curiosity.  In 1984 she found out that the house on Corona was for sale (again).  My grandmother had to know the details of this house that had been her home over forty years before.  A quick trip to Franciscan Properties yielded the listing (below) and told her everything she wanted to know.

Years later, I learned more about that house on Corona Street.  My grandmother told me that they didn’t have enough money to pay the down payment, though they knew they could easily afford the monthly payments.

The owner of the house made an offer to my grandfather –if he would take over the monthly payments, my grandparents could have the house.  This would never happen in 2012, but life was a bit different back in 1935.

It turned out that the owner of the house was going through serious financial problems and a nasty divorce, and really wanted to get rid of this house.

My grandmother further told me that by virtue of owning this house, they were now well established financially.  Remember this was in 1935 – the Great Depression was being felt worldwide.  Many people were struggling financially and losing their homes altogether. My grandparents felt very fortunate.

This is just one of the stories I have learned about the early lives of my grandparents.  And finding this listing among our trove of family documents makes this story come alive for me.

Moral of this story — You never know where your family’s history will come from.

And as a side note: I Googled this house last night and found that it sold for $817,000 two years ago. Too bad it didn’t stay in our family— that would have been some return.

What tidbits of information have you found out about your family in unexpected places? Write us and let us know!