30 July 2011

Map Your Family History

Preston Idaho neighborhood where Harriet Johnson
and her sisters, Julia, Olive, Susie and Elsie lived, also
James Johnson's brothers Lorenzo and Joe
Map created by Annalee Barajas

I just attended some presentations made by Dan Lynch of Google Your Family Tree fame. Dan recommended Google Maps and Google Earth to enrich our family history knowledge and our family history writing. Have you ever tried finding the address listed on a census, then switching to “street view” and looking at the house there now? My sister and I used this method to determine if the original house a great-grandmother lived in was still standing and worth a trip to photograph it. We also mapped homes on the block where another great-grandmother and her sisters lived in Preston, Idaho. From this exercise and from the letters and histories and interviews we did, we were able to draw a little map to include in our latest book.

What about mapping an address on an old certificate or document of some kind? Often, public buildings are still standing and can be viewed from the satellite or from the Google cars that photograph the readily available Google street view. Try looking at a childhood home or neighborhood and writing down memories that are evoked by seeing familiar places or buildings or noting the differences time has brought.

Map of Denmark with insert of area
in which our Danish ancestors lived
(created by Annalee Barajas)
Maps are needed to get an idea of where the next county or town begins, how close different places mentioned in a journal or letter may be, where the rivers and roads run, as well as other details that add to our understanding of someone’s story. Maps from the time period being written about are particularly useful in this regard. Of course it is important to get permission before using these maps in a written history that will be disseminated to others.

A map is not just a visual picture of the outdoors. The insides of a building can also be mapped. One interviewer asked two of her uncles to draw a map of the inside of their grandparents’ home. Neither included any furniture, but both noted the position of the Victrola. Creating such a map sparks memories as we use pencils to bring back a long-forgotten place. I recommend using maps in various ways to create a personal history as well as to illustrate it.

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.

18 July 2011

Eight Cousins

This year eight cousins in my parents' family have planned weddings. Some have already happened and some are yet to come. Two of these cousins are my sons. I’ve thought a lot about weddings this year, including my own. We have wedding traditions in our family—religious covenants, quilt-making, showers, invitations, food, cakes, and family gatherings. 

Medieval wedding: this was the theme for the
wedding of one of my sons
Thinking about these experiences in the lives of our sons and our nieces and nephews, my husband and I got out our digital recorder and recorded our memories of our wedding day—how we felt, where we ate, the family and friends that celebrated with us and our honeymoon. One of my nieces found an on-line site to record the story of her engagement and the dates and times of their planned celebrations. Another niece kept us updated each day on facebook. My sisters and I have relayed wedding news via email, phone calls and personal visits, as well as the traditional announcements. We even had a reunion-type sleepover party working on wedding quilts.

Hearing the thoughts and feelings of others has clarified some of the experiences I had as a young 20-year-old bride. Insights that I never had before have come to me. My love and appreciation for my husband of 44 years has increased. I looked back into my family history for accounts of family weddings to share. Here is what the grandfather of these eight cousins, Bert Whitney, wrote about his courtship and their subsequent wedding festivities.

When I decided to call a girl named Anne Christensen, I was very doubtful that she would accept a date with me, so I kept talking to her on the phone non-stop, and she didn't have a chance to answer me until I paused for a breath. She quickly said, "Yes, I'd love to go."  She later told she was wondering if she would ever get a chance to accept that date.  I had known Anne's older brothers for several years and also knew her father through church associations, but my friends and I referred to Anne and her friends as "The Cradle Roll." Now she was all grown up, very pretty, and had a nice friendly personality.

That first date was to go to the Lake Mead to swim and was on the 4th of July, 1946. We were together a lot from that time on, sometimes double dating or going places with church groups. There were also several dances at the church, which we attended. It was the custom at that time to fill out a dance card at the beginning of the dance so you knew who you would be dancing with for each dance (each had a number). It was also the custom for the Church leaders to exchange dances with the youth, so most of the time was spent dancing with the wives of the bishopric, the young men leaders etc., and usually only the first, last, and one in the middle with your date.
Wedding license application

On one occasion during our dating period, I was involved in the pouring of a sidewalk at a ranch called "Warm Springs," where I worked part-time. We were late getting it formed up and poured, so the concrete wasn't ready to finish until past time for a date I had with Anne that night. There were no phones in the area, so I couldn't call; we were planning to go to Charleston Mountain with a group for a cook-out. She told them to go on without us, and she waited for more than an hour for me. When I finally got to her house, she was there alone, and I was very unsure of how I would be received, but after I explained what had happened, she forgave me, and we had a fun evening playing games together.

All the time we were dating we talked about when we would get married, never if we would. We decided that I would go to school in San Luis Obispo, California and study electronic engineering on the G.I. bill (A veteran’s benefit which paid tuition and books, and a stipend of $120 per month).  We chose the date of August 20, 1946 to be married so we could pursue this goal together. The St. George Temple was closed at that time so Anne's parents and her brother Don drove us to Salt Lake for the event. We received our endowments and then were sealed (married) by Elder Mark E. Peterson of the Council of the Twelve. Elder Peterson was a friend of Anne's parents and grandparents.
August 1946: Bert and Anne Whitney at their reception

The trip to and from Salt Lake along with the other stresses of the occasion were very tiring for both of us, so it took a while to recover. We stayed about a week with Anne's parents and had a reception there in the meantime. Her parents gave up their bedroom for us so that was our honeymoon, I guess. When we loaded up our 1935 Chevy two door sedan with all our worldly goods and were on our way to a new adventurous life together, I finally had Anne all to myself. It was a great feeling. 

The experiences of Bert and Anne Whitney were different from those of their newly wedded grandchildren. Their courtship and their married life reflect their times, their culture, their families and their unique personalities. Yet this marriage had an influence on these eight cousins who have dated, played and planned with their chosen partners. A further heritage is the commitment these two grandparents had to recording their personal and family history. I think they would join me in extending best wishes to their descendants whose lives resulted from that marriage on 20 August 1946, including the families and marriage celebrants of 2011.

17 July 2011

You Got Me

The year I graduated from high school I listened to a catchy Sonny and Cher song called, “I Got You, Babe.” I thought of that song as I heard another song this morning with a catch line of “Baby, you got me.” Don’t we all need each other? I spent several hours in the hot sun yesterday celebrating the marriage of a dear niece. Afterwards, nursing my sunburn, I asked myself, “Why do I like wedding receptions, family reunions and get-togethers? Why do I make the effort to attend? Why do I love my children and grandchildren to visit, even though I’m dead tired and the house is trashed when they leave?” I’m not really a very outgoing person or a good conversationalist. My strict food plan precludes many of the refreshments. But I do get something out of these events. Something that is very important to me.

The key is in the words to the song by John Batdorf and Michael McLean, “What D’Ya Got? Here is a sample: (Listen to the whole song on YouTube.)
What d'ya got when you're overdrawn?
What d'ya got when your credit's gone?
What d'ya got that keeps hangin' on for eternity?
What d'ya got when it's all a mess?
What d'ya got now that's not worth less?
What d'ya got they can’t reposess?
Baby you got me.

What d'ya got when it turns pitch black?
What d'ya got when there's no Prozac?
What d'ya got when you ain’t got jack?
Baby can’t you see?
What d'ya got when your dreams get squashed?
What d'ya got when your wires get crossed?
What d'ya got that just won't get lost?
Baby you got me.

What do we really have to give each other? Just ourselves, our love, our care and our interest. To me, that’s what family history writing, family reunions, receptions, parties and chats over the internet, the phone or in my living room are all about. “Baby, you got me.”

13 July 2011

Going on vacation is easier than coming off vacation

It's not that I didn't write anything last month during my vacation in my little beach cottage by the ocean. I just wrote about my beach thoughts and my grandchildren thoughts. (We had three granddaughters with us.) I kept reading and I kept writing, but I didn't have my regular computer and I don't have a current project or a deadline. I've been home about a week and I keep waiting for blog inspiration to hit, but today I decided I'll just freewrite. That's writing about whatever comes into your mind. 

My mind is a little tired and a lot distracted. I wonder why I am keeping a blog. I have read so many great things that I sometimes wonder what I have to offer. Maybe just that, a round-up of some of the things I have read--I love Dan Curtis's blog about being a professional personal historian. I found an article about family reunions when following one of his blog recommendations. I have a reunion coming up next month and three nieces' weddings. Two of my boys have or are getting married this year and six of their cousins are as well. Those types of occasions tend to be reunion-type get-togethers too. 

Here are some of the ideas given last year on the website, LIFE STORY TRIGGERS
  • If you are planning to hand out your own or another's history, but haven't finished yet, take a chapter to the reunion to share. Don't beat yourself up for not getting it done; just call it a preview. 
  • Take your digital recorder with you and ask for responses to a particular question like "Who in history would you like to have met and why?" or  "What would you like to ask Grandma, Grandpa, Great-grandma, Great-grandpa etc.?" or "What is the funniest story about our family?" Asking the same question to 5 or 10 people could be a great chapter in a family story. And of course you can always catch an interview with someone who may not be there next year. 
  • Don't forget a camera. Take photos of everything and everybody. Once you have your photo, step forward one step for an even better one. If you are going to a place where you have an old photo, take a copy of the old photo and try to find the same spot. (Check out Dear Photograph for some examples of this.)
Whatever you do, have some fun and make some memories this summer. Then write about those memories and share your writing with others. Get connected via social networking or a family newsletter and stay connected by adding something often.