Back about 1970 there was a popular song by Bobby Sherman on the radio that included the lyric, “I gotta be more than just to lines in the Oklahoma City Times.” While the tune is catchy and the words poke fun of the obituary section of a great newspaper, it carries a serious message to those us interested in genealogy. Anyone who studies family history knows how difficult it is to visualize the lives of our parents when they were young, our grandparents before they moved west in a covered wagon, or great grandparents that we never knew. Beyond two generations we can usually only pick up hints of what their lives were like through birth certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries, and other tracks that they left while alive.
These are wonderful bits of information that fill in dates, locations, and some of the cold facts of their lives but tell very little about what made them human. What were they passionate about? Were they funny? What makes them special? Did they love small children and dogs? Did they make a difference in other people’s lives?
The answer to these and other questions is usually within our grasp. Here are some good places to start. While you may not remember your grandparents, older members of your family might remember and their memories are yours for the asking. If you don’t have anyone older in your immediate family, expand your thinking to include cousins, aunts and uncles, second cousins until you find someone at least a few years older than you. Arrange to meet with them in person or by telephone to talk about your family.
It helps to prepare for the discussion with a few props and discussion ideas. There are some good discussion guides online that will help you get started with the most basic information like names, dates, locations, and relationships. You should also ask more open-ended questions like, “What do you remember about [grandma] when she was young? What was her personality like? Is their a particular event or occasion that stands out in your mind that demonstrates her personality? What are the things that she loved to do? What do you remember about daily life at [grandma’s] house? What do you remember about going there? Were there any things that she did as a tradition during the holidays or at special times of the year?
It also helps to take along any photos or documents that you have to help guide the conversation and stimulate the memories. Who is this person in the picture? What do you remember about them?
Include your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews in the conversation. Older people love to tell stories to children. My wife once gave an assignment to her fourth-grade class to interview people at the retirement home about their lives. They came up with some amazing stories that were written down and presented to the person’s relatives as a keepsake.
You should also check for any media items that might help you understand. Do you have any photographs, movies, or recordings of [grandma] that might help me get to know her better? Is it okay if I copy these?
Most people have a few events that stand out in their minds and you should let the conversation go where they want it to go. Record the conversation and take notes just in case the recorder doesn’t work. Take some pictures yourself just to document the occasion.
Finally, get a good software program that tracks not only cold facts but allows you to organize and show off your media – recordings, photos, movies. Share your information with family members and the world by posting it on a web site where relatives will find you and give you even more information.
Your family can be more than just two lines in the Oklahoma City Times. Through your effort their lives can continue to make a positive difference in the world.
Gene Hall is a genealogist with over 25 years of experience and thousands of relatives. He is the CEO of FamilyTrackers, Inc. a world-wide genealogy exchange with web site at http://www.familytrackers.com/
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By Gene Hall