family history and genealogy

Tag: family history (Page 5 of 5)

Becoming Canadian

Shaking hands after the citizenship ceremony with Judge Joan May Way. Photo by Kate Dauphinee.

We gathered in a government office building on a Thursday afternoon, some 120 of us, from 30 different countries. It was as diverse a crowd as you will see anywhere—young and old, male and female, of every class and ethnicity. Some wore business suits, other hockey shirts and jeans. Looking on, you might have thought we had nothing in common, but we were in fact all in agreement on one point. We had all chosen to become Canadian citizens. Continue reading

How to Interview Your Relatives

Interviewing your relatives is both a simple task and a complex one. It’s simple in that the activity at the heart of the interview—talking to family members—is something you’ve done all your life. It’s complex in that this conversation is a directed one, which you conduct for the purpose of gaining information.

To make things even more complicated, you must also handle a host of difficult personal matters during this interview. Some of your relatives may be reluctant to speak. Some may speak in a curious, roundabout way, evading the very topics you are most eager to explore. Others may seize on forgotten quarrels, and it will be your job to prevent these conflicts from reigniting and overwhelming your work.

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Finding David (Part 2)

My mother and I had long planned to visit the house on North Harper on my next trip to Los Angeles. I was eager to see the site of the accident that took the life of David Lipsy. I thought seeing this place would help me understand the accident. I wanted to see the position of the house, its distance from the curb, and the visibility of the street to oncoming traffic. My mother must have approached this visit with some trepidation. The house on North Harper, after all, does not hold happy memories for her. Continue reading

Finding David (Part 1)

One of the most difficult tasks I’ve faced in researching my family history has been to trace the brief life of my uncle David Lipsy. As I mentioned in another blog post, I had trouble finding any documentary evidence of David’s life because my mother could not remember when he was born or when he had died. Without these dates, my inquiry with the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk failed to return any results. Continue reading

Why Write Family History?

Why would anyone in his right mind want to write a family history?

Why would anyone with a normal zest for life choose to squander precious leisure time on a project that seems to be endless and offers no certain hope of publication?

Why would someone who cares about the feelings of others—and about their feelings towards onself—undertake a project that runs every risk of upsetting the apple cart of family relations?

After all, a family history awakens memories by necessity, and not all memories are happy ones. It asks witnesses to relive a potentially difficult period of their lives—childhood—and adopt a new perspective on what they may consider a closed chapter. It runs the risk of pitting family members, who may have sharply diverging views of the past, against one another.

So why do it? Why take on such a difficult and uncertain project?

I pose this question, not because I require answers, but because others might require them. After all, I am propelled by my own mania, and my own reasons are self-evident to me. But in others—especially my relatives, who have indulged my many requests for information—I sense a need for some clarity about my long-running project.

So here are some answers, or attempts at answers.

I write family history because it provides terrific material. When I investigate my family’s past, I find a powerful springboard, capable of launching me in any direction. Using my family history as a prompt, I can write about marriage, sibling relations, medicine, psychology, science, history, and politics—almost anything I choose to explore.

I write family history because it reveals a middle way of thinking about my clan, a way that transcends nostalgia, sentiment, and judgment. It’s easy to reflexively look on the past as a golden age. It’s easy to fall into settled patterns of thought about your relatives. It’s easy to form opinions about your kin, and to let those opinions harden into judgments.

Family history breaks up those patterns of thought. It reforms opinions and calls previous judgments into question. When you consider the times your relatives lived through, the dilemmas they confronted, and the options they faced, you see your forebears anew.

I write family history because it gives me a chance to prove my mettle. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. It summons more ingenuity, delicacy, and perseverance from me than anything I’ve ever attempted. That alone seems like a good reason to take on the job.

I write family history because it’s funny. It’s funny that one grandfather was an inveterate tightwad, who parted reluctantly with every nickel, and it’s funny that my other grandfather shot a seal while standing guard duty on the seashore in World War II.

It’s funny that my uncle, who is inept with mechanical devices, once ruined a car because he let it run out of oil, even though he was checking the dipstick weekly. It’s even funnier that he learned about cars from my father, who was just as ignorant about them as he was.

I write family history because it humanizes my relatives. If you are fortunate enough to come to delve into your family’s past, your relatives’ quirks become downright endearing. There’s something ineffably sweet about the way my great-grandfather ate a fried egg—first the white, in pieces, and then the runny yolk in one gulp. It’s also touching that my uncle, who was a small child at the time, seized on this one bit of behavior and still remembers  his grandfather by it, decades after Baba passed away.

Finally, I write family history because it awakens wonder. Gaining access to the past is a miraculous exercise, akin to time travel. It’s like piercing a veil or sweeping aside a curtain: What once was invisible and unknowable becomes intimately known, like a diorama. The sure, sudden intuition by which you grasp the motives of the characters only deepens the miracle.

Then your own relatedness comes into play. These are your ancestors who strut and fret, whose hair, brow, and nose you share, who have bequeathed to you your musical gifts, short temper, or sweet tooth. Here are the people whose lives have prefigured your own. Step forward and greet them. They are waiting for you.

What Is Family History?

Whenever I search the web for information on family history, I’m disappointed in the results. It’s not that the search hits aren’t helpful—I invariably find a slew of genealogy sites, which are indeed essential in researching my family’s origins. But genealogy is a means to me, not an end. The thrill of finding my great-grandfather’s name on a census form is only temporary. I want to know more about my ancestors than where they lived.

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No Such Thing as the Last Word

My grandparents with my mother and uncle (1940)

About a decade ago, my mother set a large and complex task before me. We were talking about many things that afternoon, touching on the public world, the private one, family matters, and, at length, writing. I don’t remember what led us to this last topic. It’s something I seldom discuss because talking about writing usually makes me feel bashful. Yet somehow we had landed on this subject when my mother said, “You know, you ought to write about those uncles of yours sometime.”I nodded and made a mental note of her idea, recognizing it immediately as a good one. I have three weird uncles for whom I have felt a particular attachment since I was a boy—two on my father’s side of the family, one on my mother’s. These three men were colorful, outsize figures when I was young, and if they seem merely mortal and human to me now, they still hold a prominent place in my thoughts.

Writing about my family held a special appeal. I’m not a sentimental person, but I find the idea of family especially fascinating. Our families shape us. All the things that make us distinct—our habits, gestures, likes, and dislikes—we learn from the people who surround us when we are young and impressionable.

I didn’t immediately start working on this piece. I was busy with another writing project at the time, and I didn’t want to set it aside. Then there was a time when the affairs of my own small family consumed me, a period of about three years when I hardly wrote at all.

I would say that these were lost years as far as writing was concerned, but the experience of marriage and raising a child was useful when I finally got around to working on the piece about my uncles. Having first-hand knowledge of these things was helpful because writing about my uncles eventually led me to write about the things that shaped them—my grandparents, their marriages, and the way my grandparents raised their children, among other things. Sibling relationships also became important, because, well, that’s just how things are in my family.

I started with my own memories, setting down the things I recall about my uncles from when I was young. I wrote about the clothes they wore. I wrote about their eyeglasses. I wrote about their jobs, education, politics, practical jokes, cigarettes, and automobiles.

I also wrote about other people’s memories, setting down the stories I’d heard over the years. My little project grew. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write.

When I came to the end of my memories, and other people’s memories, I began interviewing my uncles, because the story still didn’t seem complete. Then I interviewed my aunt, my father’s sister, whom I’d hardly known for various and complex reasons, because her story also became important. I interviewed my mother because, being the eldest in her family, she remembered the most about the early days. I would have interviewed my father also, if only he were still living.

A decade later, my little project is still growing. I have pored over photographs from the family collection, researched online genealogy archives, and located newspaper articles about my relatives. I am still interviewing my uncles and my mother.

Along the way, I’ve worked out a method for capturing my family’s story—how to interview your relatives, how to research public records, how to separate fact from myth. I’m not saying my methods are foolproof or comprehensive, just that they work for me, and might work for you.

Beyond method, I seem to be working out a theory of family history, a set of ideas about its purpose, value, ethics, and aesthetic. Once again, I don’t claim my ideas are sound, complete, or irrefutable. In fact, I’d claim the opposite, on the general grounds that in theory, as in history, there is no such thing as the last word.

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