Why Narratives? (Part Two)

In our previous post, I introduced the concept of narrative genealogy: branching out from the names, dates, and places of typical family trees and describing the adventures and challenges of your family’s unique history. Writing genealogy in a narrative form can help overcome some of the obstacles that new researchers face, allowing them to push forward and record stories for the benefit of generations to come.

For those who think they have nothing in their lives worth writing about, I humbly suggest that you are mistaken. That which seems to us mundane may be of sparkling interest to someone four generations from now. Consider how genealogists pore over lists of personal property in old wills: what would you think of recording an inventory of your kitchen cupboards or garage? Surely nobody will care that you have two lawnmowers (one in need of a new wheel), but what if a hundred years from now, lawnmowers are considered signs of great wealth? You can’t know now what will be valued in the future. If we self-censor our stories based on false humility or short-sightedness, we may be robbing the generations to come of a window into their past.

Old Garage by Les Chatfield (CC BY 2.0)

An email I received some time ago advertising Donald Miller’s Storyline conference included this line: “The least meaningful life any of us could live is a one in which we play a dishonest role.” If we are true to ourselves and our family’s story, we need not worry about being unremarkable; to someone, perhaps decades from now, we will be worthy of note.

Sibling Rivalry, Part Three: All Grown Up

This is the last week of our sibling prompts. Today, think about your youngest sibling (or cousin). Don’t forget to apply the childhood and school years questions to today’s sibling, too!

Is your youngest sibling the baby of the family? If so, did they ever get away with anything due to their birth order? Did you and your older siblings play parent to your youngest brother or sister?

Sibs and Their Mom by Brian (CC BY 2.0)

Why Narratives? (Part One)

I think that everyone should be a genealogist. By learning about our past, we discover how and why we are the people we are today. Most of our families have some great stories to share, if only we bring them to light.

Unfortunately, many non-genealogists regard the study of family history as either boring or arcane. Except during major life events (births, funerals, etc.), my hunch is that the average person rarely stops to consider their origins. If you mention genealogy to them, their first thoughts will be of a gilt-framed family tree, filled with cramped notations of names, dates, and places stretching into centuries long past –either an heirloom that doesn’t apply to a family as unremarkable as theirs or else a monumental project that requires massive resources of time, money, and skill.

Family Pedigree Dating back to 1621 by Orin Zebest (CC BY 2.0)

We are a People of Stories 

If you think about it, television programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots are interesting, not because of the facts that are discovered, but because of the stories those facts tell. We would not watch a program that simply handed over a box of files and a twelve-generation fan chart or a four-inch think scrapbook of photos and clippings – there’s nothing inherent in those documents that holds our interest or that will hold the interest of our grandchildren. That’s where Narrative Genealogy enters the scene.

Narrative Genealogy, as I define it, involves recording in physical form the story of your family, both ancestors and descendants. Names, dates, and places will necessarily be part of your text, but the primary focus is on the colorful tales of adventure, love, and life that have shaped who you are today. Include the context in which your family worked and played, weaving together personal memories with the external history of the community, state, nation, and world in which they lived. A narrative genealogy should be a compelling story that informs about the past, not simply a compilation of data that stupefies all but the most intrepid reader. Why shouldn’t we leave our descendants a family history worth televising?

Apple Day Appalachian Storytelling by vastateparkstaff (CC BY 2.0)

Research Is Hard! 

If you’ve never delved into your past before, the task of digging for your roots can be intimidating. Records are filed in remote courthouses and archives, old-style handwriting can be a challenge to interpret, and don’t even get me started on overseas resources in a language other than your own.

Narratives can simplify genealogical research by removing some of the barriers to access that keep new family historians from recording their stories. If you start by writing out your own memories—say of your hometown or of your grandparents’ house at Christmas—it becomes easier to interview living relatives and record their memories. Once you have collected some stories of extended family, you’ll likely have a set of names, approximate dates, and general locations that will inform future study.

A common frustration in reading old census records is “losing” a relative between two decennial reports. If, however, in talking with your great-aunt, you discover a cousin that lived in the same area, a second look at the census with this new information may turn up that “lost” great-great-grandfather living out his last years with extended family. Simply by recording the memories of your family, you can open up new insights into your past that would be challenging to root out through document research alone.

A brief note: This blog is not intended to teach you how to begin researching your family tree – sorry! If you stick around, though, you’re bound to pick up some research skills along the way. The best advice I can offer to a neophyte is to start with what you know and work from there. Don’t leapfrog back and try to prove that you’re descended from Meriwether Lewis or Oliver Cromwell; let your research gradually take you back from your parents and your grandparents and see where you end up.

Check out FamilySearch.org or a free library version of Ancestry to get started. Be sure to visit Cyndi’s List – the ne plus ultra of online genealogical resources – and browse around the Genealogy portal on About.com; both places should help get you on the right path to telling your family’s story.

Evidence Exhausted: Those #$@& Citations! 

Another admittedly difficult and/or tedious part of genealogy is the proper citation of the information sources that you use. Names, dates, and places are of vital importance in genealogy. Without a solid foundation of facts, genealogy quickly becomes a fiction of rumors, hearsay, lies, and wishful thinking. Some families have passed down undocumented variations of the truth over the years to the point that nobody knows what is accurate about their family.

As we’ve discussed before, the facts of names, dates, and places are the bones that give structure and support to your family history, and to be evaluated properly, those facts must be documented. Citing your sources, however, can be frustrating, whether simply remembering to do it or searching out the proper format for a particular note.

Narrative genealogy allows us to focus on the stories of our ancestors (and ourselves) in a way that is engaging and manageable, without getting bogged down by footnotes. We should document facts as we know and discover them, but I would argue that preserving our family stories in written form trumps perfect documentation. Better a story with no citations than no story at all. The stories we tell around the dinner table or at a family reunion don’t come with a list of citations, though the facts can often be checked if a diligent researcher chooses to do so.

Family #1 by Alpha (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I caution you not to use this as license to intentionally leave out source citations because you find them difficult; just don’t get hung up on searching out the perfect citation form if it’s going to keep you from writing your story. At the very least, document what you know and why, and let that be a starting point for future researchers. Grandmother didn’t include citations in her diary, but a savvy researcher can evaluate the information and draw conclusions as suggested by the stories. The critical part is to make sure the stories are available to be read!

Coming next time—your family is remarkable just the way they are! 

Share in the comments below your thoughts on Narrative Genealogy:
  • What do you think about telling the story of your family as compared to just recording facts?
  • Have you encountered a non-genealogist who has a nascent interest in family history but thinks it’s too hard to get started? Do you think that using a narrative approach would help? 
  • Do you have plans to climb your family tree this year? What style of research do you follow?

Traditions of Christmas

This is our tree this year, the first live tree we've been able to put up since Tiffany and I got married nearly a decade ago.

The ornaments displayed represent lots of stages of our life together. There are classic ones from each of our families growing up, some that we bought during our dating years, and a handful (often built from LEGO bricks) that our kids have contributed.

We have always had very few generic decorations on our tree. The items we choose to display have significance to at least one, often both of us. Even the broken ornaments tell a story: the love of children is stronger than the obsession with possessions.

What story does your Christmas tree or other holiday decoration bring to mindWould a visitor to your home learn something about your family and heritage based on the ornaments they see displayed there

The 6x6 Challenge

Over the summer, our family computer gave up the ghost. We took it to a friend for a post-mortem – as it turns out, the motherboard was fried and would be prohibitively costly to replace (it was an all-in-one unit, convenient but difficult to tinker with). He was able to extract our files from the hard drive though, which was a blessing, since our backups are not as frequent as they should be.

On that hard drive, amongst family photos and random documents, resides the majority of my digital genealogy files. We haven’t yet gotten our files back (major family issues on our friend’s part = us not pressing a relatively minor issue), and while I do have some older backups on an external hard drive, said drive has been MIA since our cross-town move back in May.

Thankfully I still have three boxes of paper files, as well as some off-site storage. I am viewing this temporary misplacement of data as an opportunity to rebuild my genealogy database from the ground up, with a particular emphasis on citing information as properly as I can muster. It’s a daunting task, though, and I will need a solid plan to maintain momentum as I go.

Sibling Rivalry, Part Two: Teaming Up

We’re on the second of three weeks to think about the siblings (or close cousins) in our lives. Last week, I asked you to focus on your oldest brother or sister and your memories of childhood with your sibling(s). Today, write about your next oldest sibling. If you’re an only child, choose a cousin or a buddy from school. I’ve only got one sibling (my younger sister), so I’ll continue writing about her.

If you come from a big family and have multiple siblings, be sure to look back at our previous post for some ideas to jog your memories of childhood for this week’s sibling. In the same way, take your sibling about whom you wrote last week and apply the questions below to them and their memories.

Zeb and Sarah in Minnesota, July 1989

Making Memories

Sometimes when I am on the hunt for a particularly elusive ancestor, I can get lost in the records for hours or days. Free record weekends at Ancestry or Fold3 prey on my time, like virtual Pied Pipers leading me down infinitely branching paths. My lunch breaks evaporate into search sessions at the library (again, free Ancestry access).

At the end of these genealogical binges, I can certainly point to progress made in my files, but I typically feel a degree of guilt for all the late nights and excessive screen time. I begin to understand the encouragement underlying Wordsworth's verse: "Up! Up! my friend and quit your books/ or surely you'll grow double"—a great line to trot out in college when you're tired of studying (not that I would know anything about that).

If we spend all our time researching the past, our descendants may have other peoples stories to read, but what about our own? Without taking the actions and adventures that compose a life worth sharing, we will have no personal narratives to write. Don't get so busy digging for your ancestors that you forget to create new experiences for your grandchildren to marvel over!

Auxier Ridge, Red River Gorge, KY

Take some time this month to intentionally make a memory that you can hand down to your grandchildren. Go on an adventure. Try something new or revisit a favorite place, but with the intention of recording your story for posterity.

When you get back, write a vignette about your experience. Be sure to get descriptive and explain how you felt. Why did you choose that particular adventure? Who were you with, or did you head out alone? Is this something you had done before and, if so, what was different about this time? Share your stories in the comments below (or link to your own blog), and be sure to save your text somewhere that you'll be able to find it again when you get ready to compile your personal narrative.

Sibling Rivalry, Part One: "Don't Touch My Stuff!"

Today’s writing prompt is the first in a three-part series about people that hold a special place in our lives: siblings.

Our typical Friday Focus prompts ask you to think about a single person in your family and to record the memories and stories associated with them. Siblings, though, present a few more challenges (in more ways than one!).

My two oldest children, July 2014


Some of the strongest memories we have of family revolve around food. Whether you think back fondly to weekend suppers, holiday feasts, or just everyday meals, stories can almost always be woven around cooking, good or bad. How much more appetizing would your family history be if the account of your grandmother’s life was spiced with her legendary recipe for corn pudding or watermelon salad?

Christmas Recipe Box by Shimelle Laine CC BY 2.0

Do you have memories around learning to prepare a special dish (or watching someone else cook it)? Did the preparation duties for a particular recipe ever get handed over to you? Was there something you could never get the hang of, no matter how often you tried?

Father Knows Best

This week’s Friday Focus prompt is all about dear old Dad.

Society (that is, the media) portrays a wide range of images of fatherhood. I promised myself, though, that I wouldn’t go on a rant. I’ll just say that I suspect most of you have experiences with fathers that don’t match the television portrayal of Ozzie Nelson, Cliff Huxtable, Al Bundy, or Raymond Barone.

Whether you are a dad or know a dad, what does the term “fatherhood” mean to you? Did you grow up with a stand-offish, reserved Father or a playful, involved Dad? What did you call your male parent—Dad, Daddy, Father, Pop—and how does that name reflect your feelings toward him?
Aside from your biological father, did you have other older men that you considered father figures in your life? Why?

Chopp'n Wood With Dad by Clearly Ambiguous CC BY 2.0

If you have children, how has your father’s parenting style influenced your own? As I get older, I see more and more of my own dad in myself and in how I treat my kids. At the same time, I can understand my dad better and can find specific ways to consciously diverge from the way I was raised.

Take a few moments and jot down memories of fatherhood from your own life. Some typically father-ish things to think about are:
  • Camping
  • Sports, whether playing or attending games
  • Fishing
  • Fixing cars or other household repairs
  • Visiting Dad’s workplace
  • Yard work (mowing, raking leaves, trimming trees)
  • Cooking, especially outdoors (anyone get their dad a King of the Grill apron?)
  • Keeping secrets from Mom, usually of potentially dangerous activities
  • One-on-one outings
  • Learning to drive
  • Having your first beer 

I grew up with a stay-at-home dad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mom had the better paying job (by far), and so Dad raised me and my sister until she started first grade. I don’t have many specific memories from my first half-decade of life, but I know that Dad used to help out in our kindergarten classroom and volunteer around the school. One time, for some reason we were talking about buttermilk in kindergarten class, and my teacher asked how many of my fellow five-year-olds had ever had buttermilk (keep in mind this was a suburban school in the Mid-Atlantic; there’s probably still not much buttermilk consumption there today three decades later). Nearly every hand shot up. My skeptical father, in a proto-dad-joke moment, stepped in and asked how many of the kids had ever had bubonic plague—same response.

A dozen years later, my dad and I formed another strong memory during a late summer trip. I was in the midst of my college search and we decided to take a road trip through North Carolina to check out three schools. Dad rented a Sebring convertible and the two of us headed out, cruising down the Skyline Drive and stopping in to visit his mom in East Tennessee. We even took Grandmother for a drive with the top down – an eighty-something woman with a bandanna in her hair rolling through the back roads and mountain passes of the Smokies. I don’t remember much about any of the colleges (I ended up choosing my hometown University of Delaware – literally across the street from my house), but I do remember that convertible!

Father & Son by Nicolas Bffd CC BY-SA 2.0

Now it’s your turn. Share in the comments your memories of being a dad or of being raised by a dad. Don’t be afraid that your memory is too small; just write it down so you’ll have it and you can build a narrative down the road.

Honoring Military Service

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and I get a day off work, not for anything that I have earned, but because of the sacrifices of tens of thousands who have gone before.

Originally known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the first World War, the official holiday became Veterans Day in 1954 so as to honor the service of military personnel in all wars.  Veterans Affairs has a more detailed history of the observance on their website.

If you do nothing else today, thank a veteran for his or her service. Setting politics aside, the individuals in the United States Military deserve our respect and gratitude for the sacrifices made in the name of defending our freedoms. You may not ever see this, but Justin, Mike, James, Nick, Tom, Dick, Jac, Chris, Matthew, Mary, Nelson, Tony, Ben: thank you!

If you are so inclined, I encourage you to research the stories of your veteran ancestors. I believe that recording the tales of our veterans' service and sacrifice is crucial so that future generations can understand more fully their rights and responsibilities as Americans.

Myself, I am just starting to dig into the military history of my family, and I am finding that I have much for which to be personally grateful. Here are some very incomplete sketches of three veterans on my mother's side of the family.

Fifth Friday Focus: Write Your Story (Hallowe'en Edition)

Every Friday here at The Family Yarn, we encourage you to write about a specific person in your family history. Whenever a fifth Friday rolls around, the spotlight swings around to you, dear reader. It's time to put down that Census form and delve into the recesses of your cranium for tasty tidbits of memory from your life. Besides, who better than you to write about you?

Today is All Hallows' Eve, the beginning of a three-day observance known as Hallowtide, in which the dead are specifically remembered. Of course, we genealogists don't really need a formal holiday to remember our ancestors—it seems like they're with us every day!

Vintage postcard showing an owl in front of a full moon, with a short verse of Hallowe'en greeting
vintage halloween postcard by dave (CC BY-ND 2.0)

You may know the celebration better as Hallowe'en (or, if you're so inclined, Día de los Muertos, which I like because of the specific focus on the dearly departed in our families). In the United States, October 31st has become one of the most spendy holidays of the year. Much of that is spent on candy, but costumes and decorations get more elaborate every time I see them. I doubt the simple carved jack-o-lantern, bathrobe wizard's cape, and pillowcase bag even cross the minds of children when planning the night nowadays.

The prompt this week is to think back to the late Octobers of your youth. What types of costumes did you wear for Hallowe'en? Were they handmade at home, store-bought, or cobbled together from your family members' wardrobes? Did ever attend or host a Hallowe'en party? Who was there, what did you eat, and what sort of games did you play? How old were you when you stopped dressing up and begging for candy? Have you ever been through a staged haunted house? Did you ever participate in operating a haunted house? (I played a corpse one year, who sat up out of a coffin and reached out for the patrons, beseeching them to "sleep with me". Ah, the craziness of youth!)

Share your Hallowe'en memories in the comments below while you work on that full-size Snickers bar your mom would never let you keep—it's all yours now! Don't forget to save your work in your narrative file for later reference.

Image Credit: Dave on Flickr.com

Friday Focus: Mother Dearest

Today marks the inaugural Friday Focus writing prompt here on The Family Yarn. Friday Focus prompts are intended to assist you in the crafting of your own narrative family history, using individual scenes or vignettes as the building blocks of a larger story. Each week, we will provide some jumping-off questions to get your brain working so that you can spin a short tale about a specific person in your family tree. These scenes should be short (250 to 300 words), but still function as a stand-alone story, something you might share at a party or around a campfire.

This week, write about your mother.

First Things, Part Two

I have been working on my family history ever since grade school. We were assigned a family tree project, and I can remember drawing my own four-generation pedigree charts on sheets of quadrille paper. Most of my information was directly cribbed from some old copies of compiled charts that my father was given at some point - nothing more, really, than names, dates, and places. Regardless, I was hooked.

Twenty-five years later, I have moved from a handful of hand-drawn charts to boxes, binders, and megabytes of data, some analyzed but most still raw facts of births, marriages, and deaths. I can trace my lineage back to colonial Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, but much of the information has no story to it; it's just names, dates, and places. You could say that my family tree stretches for a long way back into history and is fairly wide with cousins and collateral branches, but it's just two-dimensional - there's no depth to it.

A couple years ago, I started to question the worth of genealogy all together. I only worked on it sporadically, and when I did it totally consumed me for a couple weeks at a time. And what did I have to show for it? All of the birthplaces and death dates for every generation since the Battle of Hastings couldn't even answer the most basic of questions for me: who was my grandfather?

First Things

Whether we realize it or not, our lives revolve around stories. "How was school today?" "What did you do over the holidays?" "Did you see that play in the fourth quarter?" We watch the news and read the paper to find out who did what where when, how, and (if we're lucky) why.

In a different time and a different culture, the stories of a people passed down through the generations orally. Here in twenty-first century America, the written word reigns supreme, whether on paper on in pixels. Much of our family history, however, exists only in memory, tradition, and speculation.


foggy morning scene of residential street
Fog Series by Stephen Cummings CC-BY 2.0
We woke up this morning to a thick fog descended upon our neighborhood. Driving to work, I strained ahead to catch the flash of brakes or the traffic signal which I knew existed but could not see until I was only a handful of car lengths away.

At ground level and walking pace, the cloudy mist left a cool dampness on my bare arms and shrouded the buildings across the river with a filtered light that briefly made one question the existence of actual bricks and glass. The scene from our sixth-floor office windows presented a virtual late-summer snowscape, nothing but white visible when looking out over the city.

Growing up, my mom drove us to school, which took us past her campus-style corporate complex. Her offices sat back from the road enough that on foggy mornings like today the buildings would be indiscernible. Sometimes, the closest structure would loom out of the haze just as we passed by, a sudden presence on the left side of the road. We would joke that if Mom couldn’t see her office, she didn’t really have to go to work that day, although that never seemed to serve as a good excuse to get us out of school on the same mornings.

Two and a half decades later, I found myself in downtown Cincinnati, early for a morning meeting and craving a caffeine fix. Walking through Lytle Park, the same fog that hid office buildings in my childhood was cloaking the skyscrapers and historic walkups of my new city. All at once, the rising sun behind me found a chink in the low-lying clouds and illuminated the towers with an unearthly golden-pink glow that cannot be adequately described. The waning stillness of the awakening city, the detailed permanence of the architecture around me, the moistness of morning mist, and this vibrant peachy glow filled me with an awe typically reserved for a mountain vista and reassured me that I do, at times, love a city.
Do you have any strong memories of foggy days? Were you in a city, on a beach, or out in wilderness? What is the best description of fog you have seen or heard? How would you use the written word to paint a picture of a heavy fog? Share your ideas in the comments.

Watch This Space

I am currently working on developing this blog, with the objective of teaching you how to compose a Narrative Genealogy. Family history should be a readable story, more universally interesting than just names, dates, and places.

Please come back and visit us in November 2014 for our "soft launch". In the meantime, start gathering your pedigree charts and double-checking your citations. And don't forget to go talk to the older generations in your family - their knowledge is slipping away much too quickly!


Suggested Resources for Family History Research

  • FamilySearch - free access to lots and lots of records archived by the LDS church
  • Ancestry - arguably the leader in genealogy records online, but for a fee
  • Find A Grave - pretty much what it sounds like: search for recorded gravesites of your ancestors
  • Legacy Family Tree - my software of choice for managing my information. The free version is quite robust, and the paid version offers even more. Be sure to check our their weekly webinar series for in-depth education on a wide range of topics.