Your Great-Great-Grandchildren Will Thank You

I am a family history buff. I actually do not like the word “buff”; it is kind of cutesy and overused, but it is a fair description of the level of research at which I feel competent . . . actually, maybe “avid amateur” is a better term, but that is an extra 7-letter word, and I know one is supposed to keep one’s writing brief and to the point, and I am trying to do that, so I will stay with “buff”Note 1You see what I did there ....

The family history I am working on (i.e., sporadically bingeing at until other aspects of my life inevitably intrude) consists of the lines of all four of my first grandchild’s grandparents.

The first time we visited our co-grandparents after G’s birth, I brought along my iPad with the latest app. I showed them my family history, and asked if they might happen to have any photos they could share of their own parents and maybe grandparents, or any stories that had been passed down, dates of weddings, etc. – the usual starting points. To my astonishment (and sheer nerdy joy), they responded that sure, they had whole genealogies that relatives had done years before. BOTH of them. They BOTH had typed lists (yes, typed, as in before the days of Internet research; as in these people must have put in an astonishing amount of time, research, and meticulous recording) going back several generations.

Now, while just the names, dates, and relationships – the bare bones of genealogy -- were treasures in themselves, what really got my attention were the stories. My co-grandma’s list included tales of pioneers in covered wagons seeking a night’s shelter at a lonely sod cabin on the plains, the sad case of an ancestor who perished from diabetes a year before insulin became available, and how another ancestor ran the water works on Colorado’s Big Thompson River, of necessity living and raising his family right on the grounds of his workplace:
In the 30’s Bill was the only one at the plant. . . In winter under cold conditions “anchor ice” would stop the flow of water through the head gates at the river. A pole was frozen in the ice on the lower basin with three white flags about one foot apart and a spot light on them. Three flags showing meant everything was fine. Only two flags meant it was time to roll out of bed and check the headgates.
And now when I see the name “William Clark Davis, Jr.” in my tree, he becomes Bill, the impressively dedicated head of the Loveland Water Works.
William Clark Davis, Jr.
Which brings me to my point: Write down your stories.

My Aunt Terry did. My father’s family’s village in Italy was not much help in providing records. My dad, uncle, and aunts rarely mentioned anything about my grandfather or great-uncles, who died before I was born. Their names were common in the village, so ships’ manifests provided only tantalizing hints, but nothing definite. BUT I had a treasure: a 3-page narrative typed up by Terry. She was not even a blood relative, but she knew that the D’Alessios just did not consider this stuff important, and she decided to pass on what she knew. And so now I also know that Montefalcone de Val Fortore had one newspaper, and my grandfather’s family was one of the literate few who could read it. I know when the paterfamilias and his sons arrived in the States, and in what order; I know which immigrant brother ran a successful fashion design school and which one had to flee back to Italy after having shot a priest. (!!!) I know that the brothers shared an apartment in Manhattan and expected my newly-married grandmother to cook and clean for all of them, and I know why my grandparents chose to live in West New York when they finally bought their own houseNote 2No, it was not to get away from the demanding brothers. Good guess, though.. My aunt thought someone, some day, would appreciate knowing all these things -- which I do! Aunt Terry, thank you.
Michael D’Alessio (who did not shoot a priest) with his bride, Lucy.
My Aunt Mary did. My mother’s ancestral lines are a little easier than my father’s, since the Scots are very good at making census and demographic records available. Add to that the few old family photos my mother had given me, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on my maternal ancestors. But all I knew were names, relationships, dates, faces. What filled in the spaces and turned names into human beings was a remarkable family history Aunt Mary put together in 1989 for her granddaughter (my cousin once removed): a 63-page handwrittenNote 3Luckily, her handwriting was very legible – exquisite, in fact. narrative, including not just family connections but her own recollections, knowledge, and impressions. In her introduction, she wrote to my cousin: "I must write as if I were talking to you, and I may digress and recall extraneous information but bear with me."   And she nailed it. Instead of saying “Grandpa John Hickie worked for the railroad” she writes:
John was a tinsmith before going to work for the Caledonian Railway in Edinburgh. 
Here let me say that the railroads in Scotland and indeed in every country, were being built in the mid nineteenth century, and were at their peak for a few decades. They were to travel and travellers, what the jet age is to travel now, one hundred years later . . . The railroads and their hotels consequently employed many thousands of workers in many capacities and employment by the railroads was very respectable, but one had to be conscientious on the job, especially as Royalty and the gentry preferred train travel to coach and horses. 
Queen Victoria had her own private train complete with beautifully appointed parlor car and dining car and plenty of room for her entourage. When it was presented to her, she said very primly that she was “very pleased”. Actually she was ecstatic – and gleefully planned trips all over Britain.
Heretofore a trip to Balmoral Castle in the Scottish highlands was a tedious two-day trip by coach which had to stop for at least two nights at some draughty manor house or castle where the lord and lady had been preparing for her visit. She was wined and dined and had to be every inch the queen, whereas she was just a tired, cold, hungry old lady who ached all over after travelling for hours and just wanted to go to bed. Now she looked forward to about a ten or twelve hour trip in the comfort of a warm and sumptuously appointed carriage.
Nothing directly to do with my great-grandfather John, maybe; but a delightful aside that made me smile to think of that tired, achy old monarch, and it certainly put “John worked for the Caledonian Railway” into context. Mary, thank you.

My husband’s second cousin once removed, Dwain, did. Dwain approached things a little differently: he composed an 88-page autobiography which included only a few pages of his family’s history; the bulk of it started with his own birth in 1925. He included his memories about growing up, school, Boy Scouting, military service, and family relationships. An excellent writer, he made it all fascinating. Then he indexed, copied, bound it, and distributed it to his relativesNote 4He included an introduction in the book, which concluded “So, my life is in your hands.” Sorry. I am easily amused.. The most moving story, to me, concerned the death of my husband’s Aunt Marion. Before reading it, all we had known about her was that she had died young in an automobile accident; afterwards, we knew this:
We experienced a family tragedy during one summer holiday while staying with Grandma and Grandpa Wilson at a rented cottage in Deer Park. Our Aunt Florence was also staying at the cottage, along with two cousins, Marion Smith and ‘Tootie’, her younger brother. One night we got word that Florence and Marion had been struck by a car, driven by a drunken driver, and Marion was killed. Florence was very seriously hurt, but eventually recovered. This must have been in about 1936 . . . to ease Tootie’s pain, I offered to give him the money I had in my pocket. This seems foolish now, but it was all I could think of at the time.
So. From a vague statistic about an aunt my husband had never met, to the image of a family on vacation getting the worst news imaginable, and a child of eight doing his innocent best to comfort his heartbroken cousin. Dwain, thank you.

Write down your stories. Write down what you know of your family that came before you; write down what your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws and co-in-laws told you. Write down what you, yourself, remember. Your brothers and sisters, your nieces and nephews, even your own children might not be interested; but do it anyway. Because someday, down the line, years from now, your great-granddaughter or your great-great-great-nephew or your first cousin five times removed will read it and say: THANK YOU!

If you are inspired to start writing, here are some titles in the Mercer County Library System to get you started. I have included publication dates; be aware that the older titles certainly include some outdated sources and may have nothing about using online sites – but the writing advice is ageless.

Family Focused: a Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History by Janice T. Dixon (1997)
A friendly, accessible, and comprehensive guide with plenty of examples.
Genealogy titles
For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History by Charley Kempthorne (1996)
Writing techniques; different forms of family history; plenty of useful hints and advice.

How to Find Your Family Roots and Write Your Family History by William Latham and Cindy Higgins (2000)
Skim the first 11 chapters of this book if you would like, but pay attention to chapters 12 through 19. Topics covered include getting started, presentation, inserting yourself, fleshing things out, documentation, visual aspects, and the all-important editing.

Writing the Family Narrative by Lawrence P. Gouldrup (1987)
Shorter and more erudite in tone than Dixon’s book, focusing on the discovery and presentation of historical events rather than personal memories. Published in 1987, before the Internet revolutionized family history research, but still gives useful advice about writing in a clear and engaging way.

Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story by Richard Campbell and Cheryl Svensson (2015)
This book offers a “theme” approach, rather than forcing a strict chronological time frame on your story.

And a couple of online places I found:

Write a Personal History

Family History Quick Start

Notes and Credits

Note 1 You see what I did there ...

Note 2 No, it was not to get away from the demanding brothers. Good guess, though.

Note 3 Luckily, her handwriting was very legible – exquisite, in fact.

Note 4 He included an introduction in the book, which concluded “So, my life is in your hands.” Sorry. I am easily amused.
Image 1: William Clark Davis, Jr.  (Personal photograph)
Image 2: Michael D’Alessio (who did not shoot a priest) with his bride, Lucy. (Personal photograph)
Image 3: Ecstatic. (Bing Image search for Queen Victoria, “free to share and use” selected)

-Barbara Smith


  1. Great, Barbara! After doing my family history on and off for many years, I discovered my Mother's family history, assembled by a stranger to me, on the internet. And, it all checked out. Who knew my Mother's family came over in 1631? She certainly didn't but what a pleasure to discover it.


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