Don’t Burn Your Family Letters When You Declutter

In the March 2016 AARP Bulletin, lifestyle expert Marni Jameson offered “20 Tips to Declutter Your Home.” I can go along with her advice on old musical instruments (contact your kid’s old music teacher for suggestions) and clothes (toss, donate or sell). But Ms. Jameson was way off target with her advice for love letters:

“Love Letters – Keep them if they’re yours. But if they’re your parents’, they’re not really yours: They’re part of a romance between your parents, never meant for you. Burn them ceremonially and send the love back into the universe.”

Are you kidding me?!?!!!!! Continue reading

There’s Room for Everyone in Genealogy: RootsTech 2016 Musing

Room for EveryoneInformative. Energetic. Inspiring. Thought-provoking. Loud. Exhausting. Those are just some of the ways RootsTech has been described. I’d like to add one more adjective to the list: Inclusive.

As at past RootsTech conferences, the expo hall had everything from the “big guys” — Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc. — to the start-ups and the one-person operations. There were scanning operations of all sorts along with paper scrapbooking. There were genetic testing companies and storytellers. There were the old, the young, the experienced, the novice, the techies, and the technologically-challenged.

In short, RootsTech looked like genealogy.  Continue reading

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.

freaks-of-insanity

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

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.