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The Keeper of the Details

The Keeper of the Details

January 3, 2024

My oldest cousin ferreted out that our grandmother’s sister, Great-Aunt Eva, knew a wealth of family history. She knew names of every relative, birth to death dates, and all of the places these dates occurred etc. She wrote her a letter (back in the day) and asked for details, which Aunt Eva answered with extraordinary depth from her family memories. My cousin shared her reply with all of us first cousins, and I am “chewing on” it to this day. I get it out and re-read it, and a different tidbit grabs me for more investigation each time I look at it again. It is valuable beyond measure.

As you begin your genealogical journey, nose around for the person in your family who knows facts about who, what, where, and when; who knows the town (or family) gossip. And most likely, the older they are, the better, if they are clear-minded. They might not be IN your family, but they know ABOUT your family—a neighbor, family friend, church family, or ethnic community. Plant a seed in their brain that you want to chat about and get them thinking. Come back to them later, but don’t wait too long!

These people might not be obvious family tree buffs. For example, my Aunt Stella was disabled but had her phone. She used it to get “out and about” for town details and was willing to dish. Though she was not my blood relative, she came from a large family of siblings with a wide knowledge of everyone in town. Another example: we had a party line phone when I was growing up. We all knew that neighbor Annie was silently listening to conversations and, therefore, became a wealth of town knowledge; she learned about my birth this way. There is that point when we genealogists become sleuths looking for stuff beyond the data and it is very helpful to recognize these connected people.

Don’t neglect purposeful family fact-finding. I “interviewed” my Aunt Josie and Uncle Jack every week for months with a recorder or pencil and paper in hand, one question a week. They have passed now, but their family memories still exist from those notes and recordings.

Nowadays, we have no party lines to listen in on, but there are newspapers (especially the small-town ones), newsletters of groups, letters, and preserved diaries. My great-grandmother’s obituary was reported in her daughter’s small-town newspaper in another state—who would have thought that for the 1930s? Through social media, you can connect with relatives near and far. One of my distant cousins set up a “Chantry Family” Facebook group and we collaborate about our findings. And then there is Covid-era communication. My cousins on my mom’s side, who live all across the U.S., are now Zooming in once a month, and the topic of family stories often comes up. We all know something different because each of our parents had a different perspective and experience in the same family.

You can search for genealogy interviewing online, but the Midwest Genealogy Center also has numerous books and resources to help, such as Talking About the Past, or Why Won’t They Talk to You. The main takeaway is, DON’T WAIT! Enjoy these precious moments as you receive and record a most cherished gift.

Twila R.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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