Category Archives: Heirlooms

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.

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.