Billions of people have existed on this planet whose names, stories and existence were never recorded for posterity. They simply had no means to do it. Even what we know about extinct cultures consists of a few shreds of evidence by which we can only guess at what the details of their lives may have been like. As Ancestry.com users, sifting through the past for our personal ancestral history may reveal a fascinating story with frustrating gaps that may never be filled. Oh, how often we wish we could talk to our ancestors!
The Ancestry.com organization is unique to our age with its worldwide network of databases and services. For instance, who would have ever imagined that the discovery of the human DNA, double-helix, genetic structure in 1953 would one day become a common tool used for tracing one’s own ancestry? Of course, a huge difference in our age and those in the past is the incredible variety of technical tools at our disposal which only a couple of decades ago were non-existent. Tracing our past has never been easier but is not without a few pot-holes along the way. We are all treasure hunters, so when we suddenly uncover an elusive name in our family tree or stumble across a long lost picture or find something someone wrote about their own life, we tend to get excited, as passionate people often do.
By painstakingly piecing together the mosaic of our past, we are often in awe of those who have gone before us, and the hard times they must have endured. Each of them unknowingly contributed their small part in history and how life turned out for us. It’s humbling to realize that an untimely demise of any one of them may have prevented us from ever being born. It’s a sobering thought. There’s a great little book out titled “The Butterfly Effect: How Your Life Matters” by Andy Andrews, in which this thought forms the central message of his book. It connects several lives in an amazing journey through U.S. history.
However, there’s an even more important question for each of us as more names find their way into our personal ancestral tree: “Who is there who speaks for those who are now silent?” If we don’t bother to tell their story from what we’re learning, who will? The written word is a valuable tool just as significant as any electronic gadget for which we take for granted. Even our own histories and memoirs, if written down, will eventually find their way into someone’s future genealogy record. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives have been entertwined like braids with many others. How we spent our lives, even in small ways, has contributed to the melting pot of history.
“History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.” – Mark Yost
Most leaves in our tree are accompanied by the dates of their birth and death often with a dash in-between. Every tombstone has them. But, what’s significant is the dash between the dates. There is a wonderful poem called “The Dash” by Linda Ellis that beautifully describes this subject and why the dash should matter. Many questions come to mind. What was happening while they were living? How long did people live? What was their main occupation? What tools did they have available? Who were their more notable contemporaries? What was the political situation surrounding them? Numerous questions can be asked. (I’ll be covering these in another article.) There are plenty of sources from which we can build an historical framework in which to tell a story. Every country, state, parish or county, city or town and the individuals who lived there have their unique histories. Patient research can fill in a lot of details. Talking to living people helps too. I trust most Ancestry aficionados are aware of this.
In teaching seniors at the local college on how to begin writing their memoirs, I always start with small assignments of two or three pages (about 500-700 words) so the task doesn’t seem so daunting. We tag them as vignettes. One of the first things I emphasize is the need to schedule an appointment for writing, the same as they would with anyone when the appointment is important to them. Once that is in their schedule it is easier to tell people that you are sorry but that time is taken with an appointment because it’s the truth. Otherwise a thousand interruptions could prevent you from achieving your goal of writing or researching. We pride ourselves in being flexible but this is one area that we can gain control. Whether early morning or late at night doesn’t matter, it just needs to be on a regular basis. We are either a morning person or a night owl and most of us know which it is. Also, to keep from experiencing burn out, I always recommend a set time limit so there will be a stopping point no matter how things are progressing. At that point, it’s time to get back to your real life.
Secondly, if possible, I encourage my students, to find a quiet, dedicated, uncluttered space for setting up and a separate file bin or shelf space in which to store information they have found. Although much information today can be copied or scanned and captured electronically, sometimes original documents are fragile such as old letters, or bulky such as a year book. I even suggest that they turn off the TV, silence their phone, play relaxing background music and enjoy a favorite beverage. Tools such as highlighters, sharpened pencils and a spiral notebook to jot down details are useful to have on hand. Local libraries usually furnish rooms dedicated to quiet if you want to take the time to load up your laptop and other stuff. In the library there are always people moving around and maybe you are easily distracted so take that into account. If you like the music idea, take downloaded music and your ear buds with you to the library.
Thirdly, I always recommend that the students find out how to electronically access an online dictionary/thesaurus so that they will have a ready source for substitute words to describe events or perhaps have the same information available in handy reference books. Too many of us rely on our everyday vocabulary which is limited to our comfort level and we tend to overuse the same words and clichéd expressions. English has never been a pure language but is quite colorful and loaded with many “adopted” words and expressions from other languages. We should take advantage of this fact. The Oxford dictionary claims 171,476 defined words. The typical person uses about 4,000 in every day communication and utilizes another 4,000 when reading or writing.
Most histories are chronological so taking the time to sketch a timeline to include the particular dates you intend to cover along with the names of your ancestors will keep you on track and limit your story to those times. Often it is useful to include a few years before and a few years past the birth and death records simply to explain how the times came into being. (Timelines will be covered in another blog post).
I consistently urge my students to keep a journal handy to record random thoughts or observations as they make their way through life. If you don’t already have one, it would be a great idea to get one and keep it close by or use an iPad to capture your thoughts. We all have sudden insights from time to time and if we don’t write them down, we often lose them.
Writing comes naturally to only a few of us. The majority of us struggle with the details of syntax, clichés, voice, tense, English grammar rules, spelling and other subjects associated with the art of writing, much of which we learned a long time ago. If you’re like me, you often wish you’d paid more attention. But, don’t let that stop you because everyone has a unique writing style, including you. Also, it never hurts to recruit someone to read what you’ve written and offer honest suggestions for improvement which, by the way, you can accept or reject. A second set of eyes, another brain and different perspective can often reveal information gaps or sentences that don’t belong or make sense. If you do ask someone to do this though, put your feelings aside temporarily and simply listen politely to what they say. Thank them and then go on writing. Always keep in mind that this is your story to create however you please.
In this introductory article, I simply wanted to introduce you to the possibilities of how you can become the lone voice for the names and faces of those who have been silenced by time and circumstances. As I continue these blogs, I’ll be offering useful writing hints, sources and books for extra reading. I welcome your comments or questions. You probably won’t create a best seller (who knows?) but there is nothing more satisfying than to know you are contributing to the written history of your ancestors and bringing their story to life. It is certainly worth the effort and there are people in the future who will not only be grateful for what you create but will benefit from it long after you are gone. Always keep in mind that history is often in the eye and mind of the beholder and is limited to their personal point of view and vocabulary. There is no perfectly written history, only brave attempts.
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