The Blog

More Than 500 Letters Later, A Granddaughter Is Born

Note: This is a post from Bob Brody’s Letters to My Kids, which featured Lin Joyce’s letter to her daughter Annie today. Visit the website at www.letterstomykids.org.

Dear Annie,

For many years, as a result of my husband’s job with the Central Intelligence Agency, our family did a lot of traveling and relocating. We spent many years living in West Africa, Asia, the Middle East and in Europe. I once counted that we had moved eighteen times in twenty-one years.

Over the years I wrote letters to my maternal grandmother to whom I was very close. In my letters to her I described our daily adventures of living abroad, our unusual cultural experiences and the stories of giving birth to and raising our two daughters in foreign countries. My husband is now retired and we have put down our familial roots in Northern Virginia.

In 2004 I visited my grandmother in her home in San Francisco. During this visit my grandmother handed me a large, beautifully wrapped gift box.  Upon opening the box, I saw all the letters that I had written to her. The letters were neatly tied up with different colors of satin ribbon – a bundle for each year of our travels. Over the next few days, I was delighted to read my letters again and to reflect on so many of the adventures I had experienced and shared on paper with my grandmother. What my grandmother had been unaware of until that time was that I had saved her letters, too. Eventually, I was to see that together our letters numbered over 500.

Fast-forward a few years…

You were expecting your first baby on December 27, 2007. As your pregnancy progressed, you became more and more uncomfortable and longed for the pregnancy to be over. I then remembered the letters that I had written to my grandmother 27 years earlier. I remembered writing in great detail about being pregnant with my first baby (you) — and remembered how I, too, suffered nausea, indigestion, swollen ankles and late-night awakenings from pains in my legs; and how I, too, longed for the waiting to be over. Maybe you would take comfort in reading that I had dealt with the same inconveniences.

I decided to share my letters with you, now saved in a large white binder, in the hopes that it would reflect my love, compassion and empathy for what you were going through. I presented the large stack of letters to you. Early the next day you called me on the telephone.The excitement in your voice was all I needed to hear. You had read all of my letters in one night.

You were thrilled to read about my pregnancy experiences and even more about what my life was like at the time of her birth. You said that she had no idea of what I went through – the experience of giving birth at the Al Khalidi Maternity Hospital in Amman, Jordan, not having family nearby to help me, and not having the comforts of Westernized medicine throughout my pregnancy, labor and delivery.

After reading my letters, you told me that she gained a new and deeper understanding of what my life had been like and how difficult it must have been for me. You said that it must have taken a lot of courage to go to Jordan not knowing how things would turn out or what things would be like.

This mother-to-daughter insight was all made possible because my grandmother had the foresight to save my letters. They are only pieces of paper but the thoughts, memories and stories reflected on them are priceless.

Now my sweet daughter is the mother of three — a beautiful five-year-old daughter and active twin two-year-old boys. She is making her own memories and one day will have some amazing stories of her own to tell her kids.

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

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.

New Year, Old Genealogical Problems

If you use the New Year to reinvigorate your genealogical research, how long does it take before you are throwing your hands up in frustration all over again?  Six months?  One month?  A week and a half?  You are not alone.  This year, let’s see if we can look at the old genealogical brick wall with new eyes using a few tricks:

  1. Research Log Re-boot:  If you don’t have a research log, you may end up repeating research or (worse!) missing clues that you need.  Take everything you know about the ancestor and create a research log with it.  Yes, this will take some time, but it is a critical part of re-assessing your research.  If you already have a research log, or are about to create one, try this idea:  Instead of putting your research in the order in which it was undertaken, put each item of found or attempted research into a category, such as probate, vital records, land records, census, military, family stories and bibles, etc.  Do you notice any record groups you have ignored?  You may have focused more on censuses and military records, and completely missed land records!
  2. New or Updated Websites:  You have some favorite go-to websites, we all do.  How about checking someplace that you haven’t before, haven’t checked in a while, or did not think may apply.  Genealogical websites are constantly updating their holdings.  Try a new newspaper website like Genealogybank.com (fee-based), NewspaperArchive (fee-based, available free at any LDS Family History Center), The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, or any local historic newspaper available through your public library’s website.  I was astounded at the amount of new digitized records available at FamilySearch, and solved a client’s research problem right from my home computer with the probate and land records available there.
  3. Learn Some History.  Perhaps part of your research problem is perspective.  What happened in your ancestor’s area during their life that may have affected the records they would have made?  Was a battle fought then?  Did county lines change?  Were they part of the religious reformation of the early 1800s?  A client recently spoke bitterly about a 3rd great-grandfather who abandoned his family.  As we looked at the timeline, I asked if the grand-father had served in the Civil War, and on which side.  The client had not thought about it before.  As it turns out, the ancestral family lived in a part of Virginia severely hit by the tragedies of War, and the grandfather was a young Confederate veteran.  We talked about the possibility of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress for both spouses.  We may never know exactly what caused their split, but knowing these little bits of history puts the family into a different light.
  4. Internet-heavy Research: The Microwave vs. the Stove.  As researchers, we are so very spoiled (no, I am not complaining).  So much is online at our fingertips.  However, relying too heavily on sources found online can blind us to records that are only available in State Archives, local historical societies, and local courthouses, etc.  Here’s my analogy for this problem:  In my kitchen I have both a stove with an oven and a microwave.  As you can imagine, I use both in almost all of my cooking.  I love my microwave because it is fast and easy, however I just can’t cook everything in it.  Sauces, eggs, pies, cookies, and sauteed vegetables just don’t quite work if I use the microwave to cook them.  I have to use the stove for some things.  Other things I really prefer using the microwave for.  In all my cooking, I use both of these tools.  In research, your microwave is like internet research: fast and relatively easy.  Your oven is more like on-site research or records your order through the mail; it will take longer, but the benefits are undeniable.  Use both your tools, and learn the benefits and limitations of each.
  5. Investigate the Neighbors.  If you are stuck, try a completely different approach: Neighbors and extended relatives.  Put down your research for that elusive ancestor and start up a new project for a neighbor of the ancestor or a relative (or presumed relative) in the area.  You may end up seeing their paths cross with the ancestor you’ve been working on and give you a new clue for your mystery man.  A great tool for this is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ new quick-sheet, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research.

Hopefully I have given you some ideas.  The main point is not to give up.  Remember that even if you haven’t found that elusive ancestor, you have gained experience and education, and your time is not wasted.  Tell us some ideas that you have used to re-invigorate your research, we’d love to hear!

Happy Hunting!

This Year, Store Your Memories in a Jar

 

2013 has just begun and undoubtedly will be a year full of grand events and stories.

But how will you remember them all?

We’re here to tell you about a fun and easy way to preserve the year’s most pleasurable and meaningful memories. This idea is one that could be particularly sweet for families with school age children.

As memorable events occur throughout the year, take a few moments to write about the highlights of that event on a piece of paper. Then place the note in a jar.  Keep scrap paper, pen and a glass jar in a prominent place—ideally your living room or kitchen— for easy access.

This effort can be a wonderful activity for a family to do together. By June, you might even need to get a larger jar!

At the end of the year, set aside a special time, perhaps during the holiday season, to read and share with each other the year’s memories.

Here are just some of the possible results of this effort:

  • Family bonding throughout the year and especially over the holidays
  • Memories recalled and cherished for years to come
  • Validation of children’s favorite stories and recollections
  • Memories preserved for future generations

Think how cool it would be if you had a jar full of memories from when you were 10, growing up in a very different time from today.

It’s never to late to start this activity. What sorts of memories do you think you might be sharing by the end of the year?

Get your jar ready and find out. Happy 2013!

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.