Monday, November 18, 2013

Learning A Life

I've taken a bit of a break from blogging lately because I've been writing the story of my grandmother's life. I find it's always a learning experience to immerse yourself in someone else's life. Every sentence spawn's new questions. Fortunately for me, my grandmother is still alive (the last one of my grandparents) so I can actually satisfy my curiosity. 

About a year ago I sent my grandma some questions and called to talk about them. While that filled in some gaps, I know that sometimes it's hard to remember things out of context. For this reason, my strategy this time was to start writing her story before asking more questions. I hope to have enough detail to place my grandma back in time to evoke additional memories.

As with any ancestor, I can piece together the major events in my grandmother's life from basic records (census records, city directories, vital records). These create the scaffold for the story. Every nugget of information can expand the picture. The 1940 census, for example, informed me that my grandma's father was unemployed for about four years in the late 1930s. This likely explains why three of his sons had dropped out of high school and were working. For those of us who knew someone who lived through the Great Depression, no explanation is necessary, but for younger generations it's a great time to introduce a brief history lesson. Speaking of history, no discussion of this time should fail to mention the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This seminal event had huge implications for the country as a whole, just as they did for a young woman with four brothers and eventually a husband ripe for the draft.

To flesh out my story more I needed additional details. By looking at maps I could say that my grandmother walked a mile to get to the high school. It would have been awfully cold walking during the winter wearing skirts, because women, as a rule, didn't wear pants then. From my grandma's high school yearbook (purchased on eBay, see Milking eBay For Family Artifacts) I know she was in the choir and earned a typing certificate. The scanned images of my grandfather's WWII scrapbook and my notes from earlier interviews with my grandmother have also come in handy. I also took advantage of my father's recent visit to pick his brain and discovered some variations of the stories my grandma told me. These tidbits may seem insignificant, but when combined with the scaffold and elements from history it becomes easier to craft a more compelling narrative.

Now that I have a rough draft, it's the perfect time to share it with my grandmother. I think I have enough detail to help her remember more. I also have questions that occurred to me during writing. Most of my questions are simple, though some are rather vague (what kinds of food did your mother fix to eat?). However, when I can, I try to ask specific questions that are more likely to yield a response. Did your mom have a vegetable garden? Did she bake bread? Did you string popcorn or make paper chains to decorate the Christmas tree? Even if the answer is no, a specific question may still prompt my grandma to recall something I hadn't thought to ask. I guess I'll soon see if I've been successful.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Kalamazoo Research Guide

The busy folks at Seeking Michigan have added research guides for six more counties to their website, including Kalamazoo.  These guides provide a basic inventory of the records held by the Archives of Michigan in Lansing or in some cases records held at other locations such as the WMU Archives in Kalamazoo.  The record types include: Court Records, Land, Military, Naturalization, Occupational, Poor House Records, Prison, Probate, Tax Records, Voter Records and more, depending on the county.

The seventeen county research guides now available are for Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Gratiot, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kent, Livingston, Monroe, Oakland, Ottawa, Shiawassee, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.  You can find the guides here.  Read them on the site or download them as PDFs.

A word of warning, however, if you see a record type that you are particularly interested in you may want to call ahead to verify that what you are looking for is likely to be there.  While looking at the guide for Kalamazoo county I noticed the guide indicates the Chancery indexes go through 1920.  While looking through the microfilmed index at the WMU Archive (where these and many Kalamazoo area records are held) I found that the index went through at least May 1941.  The guide also states that the chancery records only go through 1932.  I found them to go into 1934. 

Despite the minor differences I found for one record type, the research guides are a great resource for any Michigan researcher.  One of the best things about them is that they may lead you to a record type you might not have thought to consult or never even realized existed.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Your Genealogical Legacy

We all have a wish list of the items we dream of finding from our ancestors and other long gone relations. Letters, diaries and labeled photographs are certainly at the top of the list. Keeping “do unto others” in mind, what have you done to provide your descendents with fodder to learn about you and your family? I have done a few things, but there is still much that I need to do and just can't seem to find the time. 

What I have done: scanned in many of my own items (birth and marriage certificates, diplomas, driver's licenses, old school photos, passports, etc.).   I have also scanned in select photos from the family albums of my parents, one of my aunts and old photos that came to me from cousins. In addition, I have scanned almost every photo I can find of my grandparents and older generations. 

What I really need to do: Label, label and label some more. While it's great to have scanned in so many old photos, if no one after me knows who is in them it's not very helpful.  After all, I know how frustrating it is to have a collection of unlabeled photos from several generations ago.  Starting with group photos will give you more bang for your buck. You can identify more people in fewer photos. At least if you don't get all of your photos labeled, future generations can identify more through comparison. When labeling hard copies of photos be sure to use a pencil or photo-safe pen. To learn how to add information to digital photo files you can read my post Beyond The Label.

One thing that is simple to do and requires little time comes from my mom: write down a list of all of the jobs you have held in your life. You could also ask living relatives about the jobs your grandparents and their grandparents held that they know about. I knew that my grandmother worked for a while at Gibson Guitar, but my mother told me she put the mother-of-pearl on the fret boards. I'm trained as a scientist so few people would probably guess that I worked in a paper mill for a summer. While this information may someday prove useful, another reason for doing it, as my mother pointed out, is that in a hundred years some of these jobs will likely no longer exist, for instance a greeting card or magazine merchandiser.

Another idea is to write up a typical day in your life. This won't take as long as keeping a journal, but it will give future generations an idea of what your daily life was like and how it is different than theirs. While it does not provide insight into your thoughts it could make a big difference in your descendents understanding of your life. Include details about how and what you cook, clean and do laundry, including the devices you use to do them: laptop computer, microwave, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, etc. Don't forget to discuss your job and how you get there (walk, bike, car, public transportation). You can provide a bit of your own social history for your descendents. In only fifty years (or less) some things can change a lot. My mother remembers putting clothes through the wringer and hanging them outside to dry (winter included). I never had to do that growing up.

So here's your list:
  1. Start scanning. Put something good on the tv to make the time pass quicker.
  2. Write down the jobs you've had in your life.
  3. Write down the addresses of where you've lived.
  4. Start labeling photos. Start with group shots. Remember, even a few labels are better than none at all!
  5. Write a brief description of your typical day.
Your descendents will thank you.