24 July 2011

Just Imagine!

Here in Utah it’s Pioneer Day, a state holiday that celebrates the arrival of Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers into the state. I have many ancestors who “crossed the plains” in covered wagons or handcarts. I have several who came to the United States by boat from Denmark, Sweden and Germany. What was their life like? What did they do every day? How did they feel? In writing their histories, research is called for. The details of their lives were probably very different than the details of my life. Besides reading accounts of the everyday life of similar people, there are many opportunities to take myself back in time.

Dresses on display at Ellis Island
For me, that is the whole purpose of historical museums. I love to stand in front of a display and mentally put myself into the time and place represented. I imagine myself doing the chores, handling the objects, eating the food, just interacting with their environment. I think of a particular ancestor or two who would have had a similar environment and I can mentally put myself in their world. I often feel enthused to begin writing about their life immediately.

Visiting a place where the ancestor lived and worked can bring similar results. For a family history writer, the ideal vacation is a pilgrimage to such places. Even if the actual house cannot be identified, other homes of similar age, churches or public buildings can take us back to their life and times. Historical displays in those spots are particularly valuable.

Packet Ship
Sometimes it is something from my world that sends me back in time. Recently I went on a deep-sea fishing excursion. After an hour or so, the nagging discomfort of the boat turned into full-fledged sea sickness. My mind went immediately to the accounts I had read of rough seas and sick people shut below decks (for safety) for days at a time. My experience gave me a small taste of what their trip may have been like. I could still see the cityscape of West Palm Beach, but they were far out in this same Atlantic Ocean, miles and miles from any sign of land. Similarly, a camping trip, an old-fashioned food or temporary power shut-down connects me via imagination to my ancestors.

Display of trunks at Ellis Island
I recommend this type of exercise before you write about your ancestors. Find a place where your world touches theirs. Stand still and imagine. I guarantee that this connection will continue after you have pondered and labored to tell their stories.

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