Gathering Family Memories

by Maureen Taylor

By following a few easy steps you can collect family memories at holidays and family reunions. Unfortunately, too many of us think that the right opportunity should be planned. However, if you try to wait for the perfect moment it may never happen. If you tarry too long, busy schedules and sudden illness can interfere. Instead, be prepared for those unexpected opportunities to collect your family history and traditions. A little preplanning can help you gather family history where and when it happens. The best way to start is to create a family history kit that you can carry with you or keep in your car when you visit with relatives. The following equipment can be held in a small storage container and will fit in even a small suitcase.

Family History Gathering Kit

  • Pencils, notebook
  • Pedigree charts
  • Copies of an assortment of family photographs
  • Camera with film
  • Tape recorder

The contents of your kit can vary based on the materials you have on hand, as long as you have the essential tools to document your family history. For instance, pencils and a notebook are mainstays of genealogical research, but more computer-savvy individuals can use a handheld computer device to record information. The pedigree charts and photographs act as prompts when you are trying to encourage a reluctant relative to share their memories, and keeping a camera and a tape recorder handy helps preserve the details of the visit. Camcorders can be used, but it is usually not practical to carry one with you everywhere, while the new digital recorders that double as a still camera are nice, but expensive.

Now that you have the basic materials ready, follow these few steps to gather your family heritage in small, manageable pieces without becoming overwhelmed by the task

Write Down What You Know

The first step in any family history project is to record on a pedigree chart or family group sheet what you already know, including full names (maiden names), dates and places for births, marriages, and deaths. This outline of your known family history is a vital part of your collecting plan for the future. It provides you with a starting place.

Interview Relatives

Identify the individuals in your family that seem to know the most family history. Then either call them or send them a letter or e-mail to set up an appointment to talk. This may be a personal visit, a telephone interview, an e-mail interview, or maybe a plan to set some time aside at the next family event.

It is important to develop a list of questions based on the family history you already know so that you can focus the conversation. The answers will help you fill in the blanks on the family tree. For instance, ask for everyone's full name including nicknames and maiden names. Make sure you try to either videotape or tape record these conversations so that you have an accurate record of their comments. An amazing amount of history is passed down orally through the generations. In some families it involves the immigration of the family to America while in others it can be simple things like a family recipe. Read The Importance of Oral Histories by Lyman Platt to learn more about why this is a primary step for genealogy research. For a sample list of questions and a guide to conducting interviews, check out Getting Nosy with Aunt Rosie.

Use Home Sources

Let family members know that you are interested in seeing the artifacts, photographs and documents that they have in their possession and hearing stories about those items. Artifacts have special meaning in most families, from the sampler passed down through several generations to the souvenir plate your grandparents bought on their honeymoon. You can use those materials to jog memories and direct conversations. A simple family photograph can lead a relative to recount memories about persons and events. Try questioning relatives about the existence of furniture, jewelry, photographs, documents and special linens. Most of what you'll learn will not appear in any published family history and may not be verifiable, but it will be interesting and fun to hear.

Keep Track of Your Research

As you start to accumulate memories, be sure to keep track of all your sources and data. If you don't already own a genealogical software package, now is the time. Not only do they help you organize your notes by creating family group sheets and charts, the programs also come equipped with extra features. For instance, many genealogical software packages such as Family Tree Maker allow you to add multimedia objects to your family group sheets so that sound and video can be incorporated into your family tree. The latest version of Family Tree Maker includes a publishing center that enables you to create a family web page directly from the program. As you start to gather stories, memories, artifacts and facts it is necessary to have complete contact or source data for them in case you need to refer to them again. It is very easy to forget who owned the quilt made by your great-great-grandmother or even who knew the details of the argument that divided siblings for several decades.

Acquire a New Hobby from a Family Member

Is there a member of your family that has a talent that has been in the family for several generations? A friend's mother develops her own crochet patterns and creates beautiful items for special events like weddings and baptisms. A number of women who quilt pass this skill along to their daughters. Perhaps the men in your family share a common skill or interest. When you seek out memories, remember to document the talents and expertise of family members. In some families, trade secrets are the basis for a family business. My father learned his trade from his father and uncle who learned from their father who followed in the footsteps of his own father. Each generation inherited techniques and work methods.

Save a Tradition

Every family develops a set of traditions around certain holidays and family events. Are certain foods served? Is there a special series of events that occur at the same time each year? The next time you see a tradition being reenacted, step back and ask a series of questions. Find out why it is a tradition and who started it. Capture the memories on film or video as they are happening so that you can continue the practice. These traditions are clues to the history of your family. In the article The Ties that Bind, Dr. Susan Coady discusses why family traditions are important and how we developed them.

Take a Trip

Once you've accumulated material about the places your ancestors lived, it might be time to actually visit those locations to see relatives that still live in the area or find out more about your family's time there. Most people think about overseas travel, but your family history may be in the United States. When you plan an itinerary, try to recreate the lives of your ancestors by walking in their footsteps. You can take an older or younger relative with you to explore. Be there while your relative rediscovers their old haunts and recounts long buried memories, or help a younger generation make new ones.

Pass on a Legacy

Now that you've worked hard to create a legacy for future generations, take time to put it all together so that your efforts won't be wasted. Seek out family members willing to help you put together a family history, a heritage scrapbook or create a family web page. The final product is irrelevant as long as the memories you've gathered remain intact for others to enjoy.

As the family historian documenting each part of a family's existence, take time to research the background of the stories, traditions and skills present in your family. Look behind the memories to see the historical trends and circumstances that led to their inception. You might be surprised at what you discover!

About the Author
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in The Computer Genealogist and in New England Ancestors. She is the project manager for, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

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