February 10 2018

Privilege (Five Minute Friday)

I consider it my greatest privilege to be able and be trusted to keep the family history.

I was taken with the idea of genealogy research when I was in the fourth grade and first learned about our family a bit when my older sister had to do a fifth-grade project about our ancestors. The next year, I had the same teacher and eagerly looked forward to learning even more than my sister had known about the family tree to use for the assignment. I remember my mother calling her sister, to ask about the specifics for her family and my dad’s mother to get details about his family. I remember there was some confusion getting all the details for my dad’s family because the chart was confusing to my grandmother. What we got was a few generations of names and dates, maybe as far back as my great-grandparents on both sides of the family. But that was enough, and I was hooked.

My interest never wavered, but there wasn’t a lot I could do as a young kid. Once I was in high school and had some pocket money of my own, I began researching in earnest. There was a shop in town called Ye Olde Genealogie Shoppe that put on all-day conferences with well-known guest speakers and they were not terribly expensive so I told mom I wanted to go. She said I could if I would pay my way. I assured her I would. I explained that I would also need a ride to and from the hotel where the conference was being held. I asked if she would be willing to go with me and drive if I was to pay both our admission costs from my own money. She agreed and seemed interested, but not as obsessed with it as I was. We had fun going to many of these events throughout my high school years. We spent time going over what we had learned and comparing our notes. When I was in college and finally had a car so I could drive myself, I spent many a Saturday downtown at the Indiana State Library. I would pack a lunch and bring lots of change for copies. I spent so much time combing through the microfilms of census records with my head almost inside the little cave-like machines squinting to read the strange handwriting and using a pencil to fill in the forms for the census with the entries for the ancestors I found. I just couldn’t get enough. I wasn’t interested in social studies or history of any kind, that was dull and boring, but when it came to MY family, MY ancestors, I was doing research because I wanted to not because I had to. This was more intense than homework and more difficult too, but I didn’t care. I loved it! I felt like I had won the lottery when I discovered some new tidbit or another ancestor’s name. I read books that I bought at the conferences or the local bookstore. The library didn’t have much available back then. I had to limit the time I spent on genealogy so my grades in the college courses wouldn’t suffer. I longed for school breaks so I could focus on genealogy.

When I got married in 1986, my husband seemed so lucky because his grandmother lived right here in town. I was much closer to his grandmother than my own. We went swimming with her in her apartment complex pool and she would patiently answer my questions. I got the privilege of wrapping all her Christmas gifts for a few years. I just loved having a grandparent so close. I only remember meeting one of my grandparents, my maternal grandmother, and she lived so far away I only saw her once or twice a year for an hour or two. I was in heaven! My husband and I had been having Sunday dinners with his parents, his brother and his grandmother for years by the time we were married. Our first house was less than a mile away from her apartment so we often picked her up and took her back home from the Sunday dinners. I learned that her father was an amateur photographer. She had albums full of his photos. When we looked at them, I turned them over to read the writing on the back but where others would have written the dates, location or the names of those in the photo, her father had written film speeds and f-stops. I quizzed the family on many occasions to get names and dates and specifics on births, deaths, and marriages. I can’t imagine what they thought of this nosy new family member, but I didn’t let that bother me. I had loads of new ancestors to research. I wanted to know them all and find them all. His family was from states I had never had reason to research before, exotic places like New York and Pennsylvania. I wanted to know how they came to live in Indiana if their families were from “back east”. So I asked. I think they liked that I was interested in them and their families. They let me scan photos and bring them back the next week and then take another batch. After all, I was family now and would willingly share the scanned images with anyone who wanted them.

Gradually, as time passed, more census records were released. I remember when the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 census records were made available to the public. These were released 72 years after they were taken, so researched had to wait ten years in between these big releases! Oh, how exciting it was to be able to find people on the census that I actually knew and had met! I loved searching through the microfilmed newspapers for obituaries when the people stopped appearing on the census records. City directories were fun too. When I noticed that my grandparents’ families lived just a few blocks from each other I began to speculate on how they met and what their courtship might have been like. Many people thought me strange for wanting to spend all my extra time and money looking for and making copies of these old records. Social security death records were indexed and you could send for a copy of the social security application once you found it in the index for only $7 each. This was a bit pricey back in the day, but I cut corners and saved my spending money to use for making copies at the library and to send off for my record copies. This was before the Internet and then during the early days of it. Not much was indexed and even less was online. Few had emails or web pages so we wrote letters and sent checks when we wanted information and we waited, and waited and watched the mailbox day after day for the record copies to arrive or for some possible distant cousin to answer our letter. It was so different then, back in the old days before DNA testing and Internet databases.

I went to cemeteries and walked the rows searching for specific names. We knew tricks for getting the best photos of the headstones. Yes, I have an album full of headstone photos. When I learned how to write HTML and create web pages, I created virtual cemeteries with photos and transcriptions of the headstones along with the info on where the cemetery was located and any other information or maps to go with it. I wanted to share my research with distant cousins I had never met. It was like leaving breadcrumb trails for them to find and those crumbs led them back to me. I shared photos of ancestors, school class photos from my mothers’ grade school years. She had written all the names on the back when she was an adult. I knew not everyone would have copies and if I added the names, the search engines could find them.

I spent about thirty years consistently immersed in my hobby, then I had to return to the world of working full-time again in addition to parenting and running the house and just that quick, time to do research vanished. Now after about ten years away from it, I realize I really miss it and want to immerse myself in it all over again. I am a different person now with new and different hobbies. The way genealogists do research is vastly different than it was ten years ago. Many of my beloved relatives are no longer here to pester with questions and I know what a great opportunity I lost when they died. I find myself realizing I took the privilege of knowing them for granted and never considered that it might one day be too late to ask the questions I hadn’t yet thought up. Now more than ever, I understand that I am one of the older generation. Now, I am the one the younger ones will need to come to in order to get their questions answered and I want to be ready if and when they do. Oh, I really hope they do. I hope to infect them with just a bit of my enthusiasm for family history.

Having family is a treasure. It is a privilege to know them and to remember them and to honor them by making sure they are not forgotten.

This post is part of the weekly Five Minute Friday link-up!
The prompt this week is: Privilege
The assignment: Write for five minutes on the word of the week. This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation. Just write.

Ok, obviously I got a little carried away and went well past the 5 minutes…it just couldn’t be helped.