by Darla Isackson
Do you have a desire to connect generations–place yourself and your current family in context with your ancestors? Do you have the sense that documenting your life and your family’s lives can extend family influence down through the generations?
Now is the time to blow the dust off your good intentions and start writing family histories instead of just thinking about it. The project doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It can actually be fun. Most of us love our own family’s stories, but have never bothered to write them down. The fascinating quirks, traditions, and events marking our family unique in all the world will literally be “gone with the wind” if someone doesn’t record them. You may be the only one in your family who will. In few ways will your heritage be better preserved than by collecting and recording family stories.
Lorie Davis is a great example of one who acted on counsel from Church leaders to research and write family histories. Pres. Benson said,
“We call upon you to pursue vigorously the gathering and writing of personal and family histories. In so many instances, you alone have within you the history, the memory of loved ones, the dates and events . . . In few ways will your heritage be better preserved than by your collecting and writing your histories.” (Ensign, November, 1989)
Lorie pursued this project vigorously! Here is her story:
“My Mom had died when I was a young woman of 31. Throughout my life I’d heard exciting stories of her adventures in leaving Austria just before the start of World War II, and of the miracles that helped her overcome the obstacles resulting from Hitler’s annexation of that country. My dad had never gotten tired of retelling the love story of their meeting and marriage, “Why, I remember perfectly that Fast Sunday testimony meeting, when this tiny little black-haired girl stood up and began to speak in broken English. She was so small and beautiful! I thought, ‘If anybody laughs at her, I’ll knock him down!’
“But my mother rarely spoke of her childhood, and never about her own feelings during her youth, the difficulties of the Depression, her anguish at her parents’ divorce, or the trials and adventures of her young life. She was a very private person, and only occasionally dropped a tantalizing hint.
“Since her death, a yearning had grown within me to know and understand this almost hidden woman. Her works and abilities showed enormous strength, compassion and faith. But she didn’t talk about her feelings or her past. I wanted to know her story. Even more, I wanted to document her story.
“I began by writing and phoning all my brothers and sisters, and collecting the stories of her youth which they remembered. I found a few anecdotes we all knew and many more remembered only by this sibling or that. Piecing them together gave me quite a different view of the little girl, the adolescent and teenager than I had ever expected. But there had to be much, much more!
“I wrote to her old friends in Austria and America who were still alive, and got a few more details. But not enough. Finally I realized that only my grandmother knew most of the details. And she was still very much alive and kicking (and ruling with an iron hand!) in Vienna. I knew she spoke English because she had lived and worked in England for several years. If I went to visit her, surely she could tell me all I needed to know.
Lorie’s grandmother not only told her about her mother’s early life, but over a period of time related her own life story that was truly the kind of fodder from which great novels are made. Lorie eventually wrote three books, recording hundreds of family stories that would have been lost had it not been for her work. Lorie has published two novels Angels Round About (based on her mother’s life story) and Iron Rose (based on her Granmother’s life.) Her third book, Rose at War will be published when Lorie returns from her mission to Fiji.
Lorie concluded, “The journey has been enriching from many angles.The personal triumph is that the books have brought me closer to my ancestors. Their lives have been an astonishing revelation to my own brothers and sisters, and shown the grandchildren and great-grandchildren the amazing richness of their heritage. Perhaps best of all, they have caused a great many people to take a closer look at ancestors of their own. It was worth it!” 1
Every Family Has a Story Worth Recording
Lorie’s family history efforts continue to inspire others. Although few of us have the writing skills to transform our family histories into fascinating novels, as Lorie did, all of us can write down our family’s favorite stories. I have been collecting family stories for some time now, and have begun to suspect that every family has enough drama and pathos and human interest to fill a book!
I like to think that such books could be part of what the Lord refers to in D&C 128: 24: “Let us therefore, as a church and a people. And as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.” We want our pedigree charts and family history sheets as complete as possible. But books containing the spiritual legacy of our families are surely important too!
My questions to my husband’s mother about her family became the catalyst for a great adventure in uncovering and recording a family history that could make an epic movie! No one had ever written any of those stories down. However, as we began to “bug” my husband’s uncle for details about his family, he caught the “bug”himself! Over a period of three years he recorded many “stranger than fiction” stories for posterity. He had his work printed in hard cover and titled his work about the Knuters family. Knuters Bough: From a Forest in Finland.
What is your greatest motivation for writing personal and family histories? Do you share Lorie’s yearning to know more about who you came from? Perhaps you have questions you hope to find answers for. As we become engrossed in researching our roots, many questions come to mind. How much do we know about our own parent’s lives? How much do we know about our ancestors? What kind of people do we come from? What were their daily lives, families, surroundings like? Our quest to research and write family histories can provide satisfying, even heart-warming answers.
Lynda Rutledge Stephenson author of an excellent resource, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Your Family History, said “Your family history is a series of snapshots, lifeblood moments that can answer such questions as “where did we come from, how did we get here? Why are we here?” (p. 4)
Telling the stories of ancestors who aren’t around to help you is never easy, but there are many ways to proceed when you have no firsthand accounts. Ancestry recently published a book called Celebrating the Family. It is designed to help beginners reduce the whole process of family history to its most simple steps. Chapter Five “Preserving the Story; Your Written Family History” gives step-by-step directions for accomplishing the task. One step at a time any worthy goal can be accomplished and simplified directions can be a great help. Look for the book on Ancestry.com.
What Keeps Us from Starting Our Family Histories?
If we haven’t really started, why aren’t we doing it? Many times, the answer to that question is that we haven’t committed to a definite time or decided on a definite place to do it. Just deciding when and where to do it can work miracles.
Richard E. Simon III said, “There are many reasons that family histories do not get written. Those still living may feel they haven’t lived a very exciting or interesting life. Others just can’t seem to find the time or don’t know how to get started. They may believe that their memories are poor and their writing skills even poorer. However, our posterity may be much more interested in our history and the history of our ancestors than we may think. Elaine Cannon, on an audio tape entitled, Putting Life in Your Life Story, said, ‘Your sweetest feelings and toughest times can be of value to somebody sometime.’ If you have read histories of any of your relatives you will almost certainly agree.”
Eating the Elephant One Bite at a time
As I’ve talked with others and examined my own tendency to procrastinate, the primary deterrent seems to be that the task looks so huge, so daunting, so overwhelming, that we find all kinds of excuses not to start. But those who have made progress will tell you that the secret is simple: you eat the elephant one bite at a time. If we set aside the tiniest bit of time on a regular basis and do something toward our project, something will get done and we will become excited with a sense of progress. If we filled up only one page a week, at the end of the year we would have 52 pages of family history! Not an accomplishment to be scoffed at. However, if we do nothing every week this year, nothing times nothing equals nothing.
Chloe Vroman suggests we break our task into steps. (If you are simply writing down stories from memory, forget this list and just start writing!)
1. Start with a box. Gather notes, photos, letters, journals, documents, memorabilia from every nook and cranny in the house. (If the papers are numerous, you will want to have a separate box for each family member, or perhaps for each generation. If your stash proves insufficient to begin a history for long-dead family members, you may wish to extend the search to living relatives who may have received letters from your ancestor or have inherited their journals.)
2. From all the facts you presently have, create a time-line of the most momentous events of life: birth, baptism, moves, schools, marriage, birth of children, etc. When I was helping my mother, organize her materials, we labelled one hanging file folder for each time period of her life, then began sorting her materials into the appropriate folders.
3. Create the filing system that works for you; then divide and conquer! When you have materials organized into time periods, you can focus on one at a time and avoid the feeling of overwhelm.
4. When time allows, take a good look at one section or another. Assess how complete your information is, and make a plan for filling in gaps. When scant information is available, an interesting history can still be compiled by researching the major conditions and events of the times and suggesting how they impacted the individual or family. For example, my mother had no photos, no journal entries, no letters, and very few memories of her childhood, but we still created a fascinating history of that decade (1910-1920) by finding pictures in magazines such as Reminisce and having her comment on the pictures, telling what it was like to live without electricity, indoor plumbing, automobiles or tractors. We found pictures of horses pulling farm equipment, a woman churning butter, another washing clothes on a board, and a child getting a Saturday night bath in a big tin tub. The first record player, first radio, first Model T, first airplane are part of her childhood, and we found pictures like the ones she remembered. Her posterity who can’t imagine such a different way of life find her picture history extremely interesting.
5. When you have enough information to begin any section, have fun with the writing. If you know enough details, write anecdotes or vignettes instead of just relaying facts.
Fall in Love with Family History
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to make yourself do something you love? You don’t think about disciplining yourself to do it–you just do it! This principle applies to writing our family histories–and the more time we spend on it, the more we will be inclined to love doing it. I have found that I love the work as long as I take it one tiny step at a time and avoid the feeling of overwhelm. When I simply pick one little story off my timeline and write about it, the writing is pure fun!
President Howard W. Hunter said, “My beloved brothers and sisters, may we be valiant in hastening our family history . . . I love this work. I know the Lord will provide all that will be required to accomplish it as we devotedly do our part.” (Ensign, March 1996, p. 64)
Another prophet, George Albert Smith, said, “If we do our part, our genealogies will be unfolded to us–sometimes in one way, sometimes in another. So I want to suggest to you, my brethren and sisters: let us do our part.” (Sharing the Gospel With Others, p. 179)
What a fascinating journey to learn our part and do. There are so many important aspects of family history, and we may find that recording our families choice stories is one of the most delightful!
2003Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.