The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

You’re heading to a family gathering and you can’t wait to tell them all about the genealogy brick-wall problem that you finally solved. They’re going to be so excited!

So you tell everyone who will listen all about the late nights spent searching database after database. The countless trips to the library and the courthouse. The hours spent analyzing documents and resolving inconsistencies. But instead of excitement, you’re answered with:

“Excuse me. I need to go help with the dishes.”

Drinking From a Firehose

If your relatives run when you start to talk about genealogy, you might want to rethink how you're talking about it. When you’re thirsty, you reach for a glass of water or go to a water fountain. You don’t go to a fire hose. The fire hose gives a LOT more water, but it’s too much to take in all at once.

It’s the same when we go overboard with talking about our research and what we’ve found. The person we’re talking to just wants a little knowledge, not the torrent of data that we’ve collected.

They just wanted a drink of water, not the entire fire hose.

Where We Go Wrong When Talking to Non-Genealogists

We genealogists are a passionate bunch. Our research is important to us and we want to share the discoveries about our family with our relatives. After all, it’s their history, too.

But many of our relatives aren’t quite there yet. They might be curious about what we’ve found, but they aren’t interested in the research process like we are.

That’s where we lose them.

When someone asks us, “What have you found in the family tree?” they don’t want a litany of sources, repositories, and analysis. They want the story of the ancestor, not the story of you discovering the ancestor. 

Going through all of the twists and turns and struggles of our research confuses most people who aren’t “into” genealogy research. It’s overwhelming to them.

The Thing to Remember

The first rule of storytelling is “Know your audience.” Consider the person you’re talking to. Are they as “into” genealogy as you are or are they just starting to be curious?

If you’re talking to someone who is curious, keep the emphasis on the ancestor, not your research. If my niece or nephew asks me what I’ve found, I might tell them about a maiden great-great-aunt who went blind late in life and died in the county home. I’m not going to tell them everything I went through to find her, including resolving the fact that her death record had the wrong name.

Yes, we want to be accurate. But we don’t need to overwhelm people.

Ask yourself this: Is it better to

  1. tell that person every single thing you know and everything you went through to find it (and turn them off in the process)  – or –
  2. to tell them a brief story (and keep them interested so they don’t run away the next time they see you)?

My money is on #2.

Keep it short. Keep it simple, Keep them coming back for more. Who knows — maybe those appetizer-size bites you give them will make them want to join you for the full meal.

What strategies have worked for you when talking to the non-genealogists in your family?

1 thing to remember

No Memories of Kennedy – and Why That Matters

Kennedys arrive at Dallas

President and Mrs. Kennedy arriving at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, 22 November 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton; downloaded from Wikimedia Commons; public domain image.

Around November 22 each year, people start asking the question, “Where were you when you heard Kennedy was killed?” My mom was at home. Dad had the later shift at his service station and was getting ready for work. The milkman (yes, the milkman) had just made his delivery at our house when the news broke on TV. Mom and Dad invited the milkman in to watch the news with them. Mom remembers Walter Cronkite breaking down when he announced that the President was dead…

As for me, I have no memories of it. Not because I was too young to remember. I wasn’t born yet.

I’m used to being the youngest in the crowd. I’m the youngest in my family. I’m the youngest of my grandparents’ grandchildren. I was among the youngest in my high school graduating class. Until a few years ago, I was always the youngest in a gathering of genealogists. I’m used to the discussions that revolve around events that I missed. (“Remember that time we <blank>? Oh, that’s right. You weren’t born yet.” Sometimes, I think my sisters enjoy those conversations a little bit too much.)

So Many Points on the Timeline

People have expressed almost sadness that I missed this key event in the nation’s history. On the one hand, it would be interesting to be able to carry on a conversation comparing notes of “where were you.” But on the other hand, there are lots of key events that I — and a lot of my friends — have missed. Pearl Harbor. The 1929 Stock Market Crash. Lincoln’s Assassination. Fort Sumter. The Treaty of Ghent. Washington’s first inauguration. Lexington and Concord.

I look at my great-niece and great-nephews and realize that events that I do remember vividly — things like the space shuttle Challenger and 9/11 — are things they they will only hear about from others. They have no memory of them.

Why This Matters — and What We Can Do

So why does it matter that I have no memory of JFK? Because others do, and they need to record those memories for those of use who don’t. And for those like me who don’t have those memories, we need to record our “where I was” stories for the key events in our lives, so that the youngsters of today — and those yet to be born — will know.

[NOTE: I published a version of this on my older blog No Story Too Small in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.]

The Disgusting Words in Genealogy

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~L.P. Hartley

There are times while researching your family’s history that you come across a document that makes you want to smack someone. The words on the page scream in your ears and chill your soul.

Deaf and dumb. Idiotic. Defective. Lunatic. The N word.

In today’s society, they are disgusting words. But that hasn’t always been the case.


The Progress (White Earth, Minnesota), 14 July 1888.

It wasn’t just newspapers. Consider the heading on this document:defective-dependent-delinquentThat little gem is from a special schedule in the 1880 U.S. Federal census: “Supplemental Schedules of the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” (sometimes referred to as the Defective Schedule or the DDD Schedule.) Included on that schedule were people classified as Insane, Idiots, Deaf-Mutes, Blind, Inhabitants in Prison, Homeless Children, and Paupers and Indigents in Institutions.

About Those Words

I wrote about the 1880 DDD Schedule in a post titled “Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?” Recently on Twitter, @nickidewbear said:

This got me to thinking about that title and why I didn’t put “defective” in quotes, as she suggested in a later tweet.

Defective was the word that was used on the document. It was not a euphemism. It was how the Federal government classified those people. It was the government saying, “These people are defective, dependent, and/or delinquent.”

The Federal government in 1880. Not me today.

Why That Matters

Accuracy is paramount in our research. When we change language or put things in quotes to soften the brunt of disgusting-sounding words, we are not being accurate.

We need to record the words — as disgusting and offensive as we find them to be. They were the words used by the people creating the records. They are their words. It’s not up to us to change them.

A Bit of My Background

I come at this issue from two different sides. I am a historian.

I am also the mother of a profoundly Deaf son. He was born Deaf. He does not speak. He also has other challenges that he struggles with every single day of his life.

If he had been living in 1880, he would have been on the Defective schedule. The Federal government would have called him Defective. I’d like to believe that I, as his mother, would not have called him that or thought of him that way. I’d like to believe that in 1880, I would have thought of him as I do today: my son.

So when I record the words used by our ancestors, I do so with a heavy heart. But I also know that softening those documents for today’s sensibilities do not serve any purpose except to make us feel better.

We Cannot Judge Nor Excuse

We cannot judge people of 100 years ago for the words they used. We can examine them. We can study them. We can see what they mean in context. But we cannot judge them.

Nor can we excuse them. It is easy to rationalize away their word choices. “Oh, when they said ‘deaf and dumb,’ they meant ‘dumb’ in the sense of ‘mute’ or silent.” No, sometimes they really did mean “dumb” like we’d use that word today: Stupid. If you were Deaf — especially if you couldn’t speak — your intelligence was questioned.

What we can do is read the words of the time and try to put them in context, to try to understand without judging, without excusing.


Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

Shaking up the routine can be a good thing. Normally, my days would be spent in my office or at the library. But for a few days, I’m trading the view out of my office window for a view of the lake.

Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

But while I don’t have an Internet connection except for my iPhone and the nearest library has limited hours right now, I’m still working on my genealogy. How?

Living memory.

I’m lucky/fortunate/blessed to have the opportunity to spend some time with my parents. Both of them are filled with stories. There are times that my sister and I ask them specific questions, sometimes the stories just flow on their own.

I want to keep things as simple as possible right now (for a variety of reasons). For this situation, when the stories start flowing, I’m hitting the “Record” button on the Voice Memos app that came pre-installed on my iPhone. So when Dad starts describing the Thanksgiving dinners he had growing up, all I have to do is press Record and sit back and listen… and enjoy.

It isn’t the “best” method for doing it, but it’s getting done. Some day, when my mom and dad are gone, I won’t have to say, “I wish I would have recorded some of their stories.”

Please excuse me now. The lake — and the stories — are calling me.

How Quilting Is Like Genealogy

I am a wanna-be quilter. My grandma quilted. My aunt quilted. My mom has been embroidering what will be the top of a quilt. (Can’t wait to see it when it’s done.) Me? I’ve always loved the play of colors and patterns, but I can barely sew. What makes me think I can quilt?

This past winter, I finally broke down and bought a couple of books and some fabric. I then did what I’ve done before when I’ve bought fabric: I looked at it. I read the book. Looked at the fabric some more. Leafed through the book some more.

Quilting and cutting

Quilting Rule #1: No bleeding on the fabric.

Finally, I chose a pattern. (Progress!) Then the big step… Cutting the fabric. Let me just say right now that those rotary cutters are sharp!

I quickly learned Rule #1 of quilting: No bleeding on the fabric.

After I got the pieces cut, I did what I’ve done before: I let the fabric sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

I was paralyzed when it came to sewing the rows together. For months, my quilt looked like this:

Quilt rows

I’m glad I numbered the rows and took this picture. Otherwise, I would never have remembered how I wanted to assemble it. Yes, it sat for so long that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to go together.

Finally, after some well-intended nagging from my sister, I decided enough was enough. I have to get this top finished. As I was pinning the rows together, it struck me how much genealogy is like quilting.

Variety Is Good

My quilting book talked about how it’s important to have a variety in the fabrics you’re using. Different colors, different values, different scale. It would be a boring quilt if everything was the same.

When we’re researching our ancestors, it’s pretty boring if we only look at the same old records all the time. Throw in different things. Have you relied solely on census records and death certificates? Look at land records. Dig into probate.

Look for Patterns

On one trip to a local quilt shop, I was eyeing a pattern for a table runner. I thought it was too advanced for me. It looked so complicated. My sister looked at it and broke it down. “Look,” she pointed out, “it has four basic blocks. You can see how they fit together.” She was right. It looked almost like chaos, but after you saw the pattern, you saw that it repeated itself.

Our ancestors are the same. If we look at everything all at once, it can look like a jumbled mess. But once we study them and see how they associate with the people around them, we can see where the patterns repeat. Those neighbors near them in the 1880 census? I bet some of them are the same neighbors in 1870, even if the ancestor is living in the different place. (People move together.)

Accept Imperfections

My quilt isn’t going to win any ribbons at the state fair — and that’s ok. i worked on it. It’s my creation. It is what it is.

My family tree is the same way. There are all kinds of imperfections in it. I’m certain that I have some wrong limbs on the tree. I’m also certain that my ancestors themselves have imperfections. I have to accept that fact and take them for who they are.

Strive for Improvement

Though I accept my quilt for what it is — imperfect — that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get better. I’m going to learn and practice more. (I will get better at cutting!) I will stretch myself and my skills. (Next stop: half-square triangles!)

Genealogy, too, calls me to improve. Skills like reading old handwriting only improve with practice. There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a new record group, a new repository, or a new way of presenting your findings. It’s challenging and exciting all at the same time.

There Is One Difference

For all the similarities between genealogy and quilting, there is one big difference. Unlike genealogy, you can actually have a finished quilt. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Mine isn’t there yet!)

quilting and genealogy

I got the top pieced together!