A Pleasurable Pursuit

Family History - a simple guide to tracing your rootsThe privilege of preserving family history has traditionally been entrusted to the elders of the clan. The peoples of ancient cultures transmitted their stories by word of mouth, and over time these oral histories became the stuff of myth and legend. Today, of course, we have the ability to record family stories in media of all sorts, but it is still the family elders who are best equipped to take on this pleasurable pursuit.

Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles are often blessed with more leisure time and freedom that those of us who are busy raising and supporting young families. Older family members also have more direct knowledge of preceding generations. And what’s more, they bring an added perspective to the family story because past and future alike threat throughout their lives.

It is important to remember that genealogical research is what your make of it. If you love the idea of tracing ancestors back for centuries on end, you’ve found the hobby of a lifetime. But the researcher who draws only odds and ends from the deep family well should also find plenty of rewards.

Family History vs. Genealogy

The goal of this booklet is to help family historians piece together an account of their family’s journey through time in an eminently organized and enjoyable way. it also lists informative print and online resources (pages 32 and 25) that can not only bolster your research but also help you ensure an auspicious beginning should you choose to unearth your family’s roots.

A family history isn’t quite the same as a full genealogy, though tracking down a history may lead to heavy-duty genealogical research. So what is the difference?

  • Genealogy’s primary goal is to compile and document family lineage, tracing backward as far as possible to create family tree. Its core elements are the who, when and where of births, marriages, and deaths, and each fact is confirmed to the highest degree of accuracy. Genealogy is fascinating, but it is also a time-intensive and often costly process, so it doesn’t appeal to all and sundry.
  • Family histories are as much about the lives people lead as their names and dates; you need not go back to the umpteenth generation or spend days and weeks documenting every fact. Instead, the information you search out is entirely up to you.

How to Get Started

As the family historian, you can begin simply by sitting at the kitchen table with some paper and a pen. The starting point is you, since what you already know is your most important asset. Names, dates, places family milestone – all the information you hold in your memory constitutes your most valuable research too.

Just the act of writing down basic information will shake loose memories, usually triggering additional recollections. Jotting down the names of the schools you attended, for example, will spur vivd memories of teachers, playground friends, and specific events you haven’t thought of in years.

Among the most exciting aspects of documenting family history is revitalizing long-forgotten memories and setting them out for others to enjoy. Who knows what impact your history may have on future generations? Perhaps a grandchild or great-grandchild will be inspired to continue your work.

Sharing the History

Another pleasure of documenting the family is sharing your project with others – and sometimes renewing relationships with family members who have drifted away over time and distance. If you’ve been hoping for an excuse to contact that second cousin you haven’t talked to since college, this could be the perfect opportunity.

Whether you have dozens of relatives or just a few, each has stories to tel and information to impart. In most families, relatives who get together have a way of telling and retelling favorite stories. but behind those tales are probably anecdotes and accounts that aren’t shared so often, and it is these that can be the hidden treasures in your family history.

Older relatives and people in other branches of the family may be able to help confirm what you know, filling in gaps and providing you with context. You might, for instance, discover that someone else in the family is doing genealogy and would be delighted to exchange tips with you. Creating a family history is one of those pursuits that prompts almost everyone to be generous with their time and knowledge. After all, who doesn’t want to go down in history?

  — Introduction in booklet bundled with The Grandparent’s Book of Shared Memories, a journal (Reader’s Digest. 2008)

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