30 March 2021

4 Steps to Writing Your Own Life Story

My sons know I'm something of a computer guru. I've been working at a computer their whole lives.

But do they know my mother saved my life in a car crash when I was 10? Do they know why I went to 3 colleges for a total of 5 years? Have I told them I starred in several student films in college?

I've written before about an easy way to write your ancestors' life stories. It's based on family lore and all the documents and photos you've collected. But what about your own stories? What about those important memories that exist only in your head?

This project will be a living document. Old memories crop up when we least expect them. If you have a place to capture them, you can add to your life story at any time.

You may want to use a blank book for your living life story. Or you can use a loose leaf binder so you can arrange your memories in chronological order. Me? I prefer an electronic document, like a Word file. Nothing beats cut-and-paste for putting things where they should be.

Once you've chosen where to capture your memories, here's how to get started.

In 4 steps you can return to at any time, you can write your life story for future genealogists.
In 4 steps you can return to at any time, you can write your life story for future genealogists.

Step 1: Create a Timeline

Enter some basic facts, such as:

  • When and where you were born
  • All the schools you attended, plus where and when
  • All the places you worked, where and when
  • All the places you lived, with addresses and years
  • Key life events like marriages and births

The schools, jobs, and homes are a long list for me! Like, crazy long. But they play a big part in my life story.

Step 2: Add Highlights

Think about each of your schools, jobs, and homes one at a time. Take the time to dwell on each one until some memories come bubbling up to the surface.

Write down an experience that crystallizes that time and place for you. I have an unusual anecdote about my childhood home. It's a recurring dream I had about the house itself. I've already told my sons about this weird dinosaur dream. So much so, that one of my sons has had it, too! It seems I've already passed that down.

I'd like to capture the dream, but I won't leave out the real memories of that house, like:

  • Playing "Beatles" when my cousin would visit and we were a group of 4. We'd run around the backyard, pretending a mob of girls was chasing us.
  • All the family and neighborhood parties we had in the basement that my dad turned into a bar and poolroom. I was a child bartender. That's fun.
  • My chemistry set! The memory of it is so important to me. Because it might make a mess, Mom made me set it up in the darkest, scariest corner of our basement, behind the bar. It took courage to go play with it.

I'll bet you can pull up memories about every place you've lived, worked, and gone to school.

Take advantage of the mood when it strikes you. Jot down these basic memories with enough detail for you to remember the whole story and fill it in later. For instance, I can come up with a short list of memories for my homes in:

  • California: I don't remember being a baby in Buena Park, but I did visit the house a few years ago
  • Long Island: our playhouse in the backyard, and seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show
  • Rockland County: summers by the pool and countless drive-in movies
  • Connecticut: moving ourselves into that house, and the great bee infestation
  • Indiana: driving 60 miles to college twice a week, and seeing every major film of 1982
  • New Jersey: buying my first car, getting my first apartment
  • Pennsylvania: the days my kids were born, and buying 4 houses
  • New York again: building our house on a mountaintop with an awesome view

And I can do the same for each of my many schools and jobs.

Step 3: Bring the Memories to Life

Go back to your list of memories and relive one. Flesh it out for future readers. Write it as if you were watching it in a movie, but don't fuss over the style. Tell why it's important to you. Why do you still remember it? Does that memory lead you to another? Write that down, too.

Of course, there are some memories we don't want to share with our kids, or anyone else. Those will have to stay in our heads. But we can still have our "feels" while reliving them.

Return to your living document whenever an important memory comes back to you in a dream or in a train of thought. It should be therapeutic, and a bit eye-opening. Re-read what you've got to see if more details spring to mind.

Step 4: Mention Your Project

This is the easiest step, but it's crucial. Once you've gotten started, let some family members know about it. You don't have to share it yet, but make them aware it exists, and where it is.

Your family history research tends to focus on your ancestors, right? I know I spend most of my time thinking about my relatives from the 1800s. I wish I had even one anecdote from their lives.

This is your chance to blow the minds of your future relatives when they discover you.

23 March 2021

You, Too, Can Develop a Genealogy Super Power

I have genealogy super powers. I've been doing a massive amount of work to build my research database. I made tens of thousands of Italian vital record images searchable on my computer. I can piece together more of my extended family than ever before.

Recently, I made the Pesco Sannita vital records searchable by name. That's my great grandmother's hometown, and I was eager to find more of her ancestors. Then I remembered a past project of mine. It involved locating documents to fill in missing birth dates in my family tree. Now I can also search for people from Pesco Sannita.

I spent the weekend finding documents and filling in missing birth dates. To do this, I arranged my list of people by birth year in Family Tree Maker and went straight to 1809. That's when the Italian government began recording births.

I'm using my super powers to fill in an many blanks as possible in my family tree.
I'm using my super powers to fill in an many blanks as possible in my family tree.

For many people in my tree, I knew what year they were born based on their age when they had a child. But that isn't reliable. I had to search for their birth or marriage to learn exactly when they were born.

I wanted to speed up my progress. My goal is to add relationships that can tie me to more DNA matches. I decided to break a cardinal rule. I did something drastic. I added dates and names to my family tree WITHOUT adding the document image or source citation.

That isn't as bad as it sounds. My tree has 27,400 people as I write this. I'm related to the majority of the people by marriage, not blood. That's how it was in small towns back then. All the families intermarried. I can return to the document on my computer at any time. Whenever I need to firm-up that family unit, I can do so easily. I can find the documents again, add them to my tree, and create the source citation.

I would never do this fast-paced fact gathering with any other type of document. It would be completely crazy to add, say, facts from a census form without saving the form and its citation info. But I have this unique opportunity to build out dead ends in a hurry.

I set to it, working on each incomplete or estimated birth date from 1809–1847, so far. It's so gratifying. I keep thinking it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And it's addictive.

One by one, I found a person's missing birth date. Sometimes I found their marriage and death record in the same search results. For each marriage record, I added:

  • the dates of their marriage banns, license and church ceremony
  • their spouse's name and birth date
  • both their parents' names and some of their facts.

Many times the right documents proved I could merge together 2 people in my tree with the same name.

You already have the interest. Dive into the genealogy documents and you will learn.
You already have the interest. Dive into the genealogy documents and you will learn.

Aside from finding what I need, there's a great value to examining every document from a town the way I do. Horribly scribbled names do not slow me down. I know the last names from each of my towns well. They're as familiar to me as my own. I can recognize by their name if a spouse is an out-of-towner.

In fact, I taught myself to read these difficult old documents by diving right in. Each time I found an unfamiliar Italian word, I looked it up. Dates were always written in long hand, so I had to memorize the words for months and numbers. I learned exactly where to look for key facts on different types of documents.

My husband doesn't understand how I can look at the scribbles on my computer screen and pull out the facts I want. But we all learn what we need to learn. He can read a schematic diagram because he's an engineer. I can read old Italian vital records because I'm an Italian genealogy researcher.

You can develop your genealogy super power, too. Don't give up and say you can't read another language. Go to the FamilySearch Wiki and find the genealogy keywords for the country you need. You don't need to understand every single word. Then dive in and get familiar with your surroundings. Learn all the names in town. Find your family. Be your family's superhero.

16 March 2021

Bringing My Great Grandmother Back to Life

Have you used MyHeritage's Deep Nostalgia tool to animate photos of your ancestors? I did a handful. Only one made me cry.

My great grandmother, Maria Rosa Caruso, was one tough little woman. Even in her youth, she was very broad. She looked like a wrestler compared to my great grandfather, Pasquale Iamarino.

My idea of Maria Rosa changed when I received some old photo albums belonging to my late aunt. There were several dashing photos of Pasquale. And one lovely portrait of Maria Rosa before she married. She was still a very sturdy woman, but I could see that she was beautiful.

I had already used MyHeritage to colorized her portrait. The colors were garish, but I adjusted them in Photoshop for a very nice finished product.

I uploaded the full-length portait into the Deep Nostalgia tool. When I saw the result, and young Maria Rosa smiled and looked at me, I broke down and cried. I loved her! The only time I met her, I was too young to really remember. Seeing her move and smile with her pretty eyes, I felt as if she were reaching out to me. (See the animation below.)

Since then, I've been concentrating my family tree-building efforts on Maria Rosa's branch. She and Pasquale are my only pair of great grandparents who met in America. They were not from the same town in Italy. They were set up by Maria Rosa's brothers who worked for the Erie Railroad with Pasquale. They sent for their sister, who arrived in New York in July. Four months later, she married Pasquale.

Targeting the Search

Sitting on my computer are all the available vital records from her hometown in Italy. I printed out a fan chart of all her ancestors to make it clear what I have and what I need to find.

I've already used the vital records to identify:

  • her parents and siblings, including her stillborn twin, Luca
  • her 4 grandparents
  • her 8 great grandparents
  • her 16 2nd great grandparents

Those 16 are my 5th great grandparents, so I'm doing pretty well. I've also identified:

  • 16 of her 32 3rd great grandparents
  • 1 of her 64 4th great grandparents, born about 1719

It's her missing 3rd great grandparents that I'd love to find. All were born in the early 1700s, and the vital records begin in 1809. They most likely died before 1809.

So how did I find 16 of them? The answer lies with the younger generation(s).

  • The death record of the eldest person on any branch of your family tree should name their parents.
  • A marriage record can include death records for the bride and groom's parents. If the groom's father is dead, you may find his father's death record. That takes you back another generation.
Inspired by her smile, I'm setting to work on great Grandma Maria Rosa's family tree.
Inspired by her smile, I'm setting to work on great Grandma Maria Rosa's family tree.

Digging Deeper

I've been renaming thousands of vital records from Maria Rosa's town. I'm including the name of the person and their father's first name. This makes every file searchable on my computer. I've finished all the birth and death records. I've finished the marriage records, but not the records go with the marriages.

It's these extra records that may hold the names of Maria Rosa's missing ancestors. With her fan chart beside me, I plan to continue renaming the records, looking for the names I need. I'm up to 1824, and the marriage records end in 1860. The end is in sight!

I found the 1809 death record for my 6th great grandfather, Tomaso Guerra. I'm very disappointed that it didn't mention his mother's name. That's why I have only 1 of Maria Rosa's 4th great grandparents. He's my 7th great grandfather, Nicola Guerra.

Following a Road Map

If your genealogy software lets you, I recommend printing a targeted fan-chart. Use it to focus on a particular dead end or neglected branch in your family tree. It's possible the answer is out there, but you haven't gotten serious about searching.

I spend most of my time connecting all the families from Pasquale Iamarino's hometown. Three of my great grandparents were born there, along with almost all their ancestors.

Then that eerie, creepy Deep Nostalgia technology brought Maria Rosa front and center.

09 March 2021

Fallen Soldier Memorials Inspire a Research Project

On my Italian honeymoon, we took a day trip to find my Grandpa's hometown of Colle Sannita. Like many people, I had a fantasy of walking along the streets and finding a house with my maiden name on it.

That didn't happen. What did happen was a crazy adventure, but before things went haywire, we found the town piazza.

There was a touching memorial to their fallen sons, brothers, and husbands who fought in World War I and II. On a later visit, I photographed all four sides of the memorial and captured each soldier's name.

I knew I could identify many of the fallen and find them a place in my family tree. I know a website that lets you look up a fallen soldier and learn many facts, including their parents' names.

Three years after photographing the memorials, I haven't tackled this project. But seeing another memorial from my family's church kicked this project into gear.

Finding the Bronx Boys

They tore down my family's church in the Bronx, New York, not long ago. Every wedding from my parents' generation took place in Our Lady of Pity Church. My parents and their siblings and cousins attended Our Lady of Pity School. The priest who married my parents there baptized me there. I have vague memories of the church from my childhood.

My parents remember the church's fallen soldiers memorial quite well. Mom's brother Johnny's name is on it (LEONE J.). His B-17 plane crashed in July 1944, killing the whole crew. When I saw a photograph of the church memorial again, something struck me. Many of the last names were familiar from my recent research. Baldini, Frusciante, Vetere, Zeolla.

With so many familiar names, were any of my uncle's fellow soldiers related to us?
With so many familiar names, were any of my uncle's fellow soldiers related to us?

It would be nice to find a place in my family tree to honor these fallen soldiers.

I searched for the Bronx soldiers in the 1940 census, in my parents' neighborhood. The first soldier I found with complete certainty was C. Vetere. The name Vetere comes from my great grandmother's hometown of Pescolamazza.

Crescenzio Vetere, sometimes called Joseph, was born in 1915 to Pietrantonio Vetere and his wife Giovina, later known as Mary. In 1920 they lived around the corner from the building where my dad grew up. In 1930 they lived a couple of buildings down. In 1940, Crescenzio and his new wife lived a couple more blocks away, but still within the church's footprint.

The family lost 29-year-old Crescenzio on 16 November 1944. It took 4 years for the military to return his remains to the U.S. and bury them in a military cemetery on Long Island.

While I'm pleased to learned so much about my Uncle Johnny's comrade in arms, I can't place him into my family tree. His father came to America too early for me to prove he was born in Pescolamazza. (The earlier ship manifests don't provide as much detail as the later ones, starting about 1898.)

I'll search for more of Johnny's other colleagues. But let me try an easier, World War I Italian soldier first.

Turning Back to Italy

Angelo Mascia is not a close relative of mine. As far as I know, he is not my blood relation at all. But his parents are in my family tree. And now, so is he.

I found him listed on the Colle Sannita monument as Mascia Angelo di Costanzo. The "di Costanzo" means his father's name was Costanzo. Knowing that helped me find his birth record easily. (See How to Read an Italian Birth Record.)

Finding this distant relative's military record led to the site of a massive war memorial.
Finding this distant relative's military record led to the site of a massive war memorial.

Angelo was born on 29 August 1894 in Colle Sannita to Costanzo Antonio Mascia and Maria Paolucci. With his exact birth date, I went to a website where I could look up his military record. (This excellent resource is only for the province of Benevento, which is lucky for me.) The record says he died near Monte Sei Busi on 2 August 1915. When I finally found it on a map, what I saw broke my heart. The area is a nature preserve. But what they've also preserved are the legendary World War I trenches, gun turrets, and rows of barbed wire obstacles.

I searched online for an Italian battle happening on that date. I've done this research before to figure out where my grandfather was held as a prisoner of war. I found the battle, and I found a map showing the area where it happened.

Angelo died on the second-to-last day of the Second Battle of the Isonzo. There were 12 battles of the Isonzo, fought in the Alps near the border of Austria. This battle claimed 41,800 Italian soldiers, including Angelo.

Now I can add Angelo's birth record and military record to my family tree. I'll also add my photo of his name on the town's monument.

I love to find worthwhile genealogy projects to shake up my routine. This one seems very worthy of my time. Have you found monuments like these in your travels? If you have photos, it's time to take another look.

02 March 2021

RootsTech's DNA Lectures Keep Inspiring

Last week's virtual RootsTech conference can keep inspiring and teaching us all year. My main focus so far is the DNA lectures. Instead of watching them all one after another, I kept pausing to try out the techniques I was learning.

First I learned about chromosome browsers. I wish Ancestry.com would add one because I have the most cousin matches on that site. I learned how to triangulate matches with the chromosome browser on MyHeritage.com. I uploaded my DNA as well as my parents' DNA there long ago.

This lecture made me think of a long-standing mystery in my own DNA. A tool on GEDmatch told me my parents are related. They show up as each other's matches on Ancestry. The first thing I wanted to try on MyHeritage was a comparison of the 3 of us.

Once I logged into myheritage.com, I went to the DNA menu and chose DNA Tools, then Chromosome Browser. You can compare up to 7 DNA matches at a time to see exactly where you intersect.

But before I tried this, I had watched a lecture about pedigree collapse and endogamy. My remote ancestral Italian hometowns had tons of intermarrying of the families. In fact, even though they met and married in Ohio, my paternal grandparents were 3rd cousins.

When I was a kid, I thought it was a coincidence that Grandpa had the same last name as Grandma. No one said anything to me, but there's no way Grandpa Iamarino didn't know who his landlord was in 1927. He was Pasquale Iamarino—the 2nd cousin of Grandpa's father. Pasquale left Italy when Grandpa was a little boy, but they definitely knew they were family.

Because my grandparents were 3rd cousins, I have double ancestors belonging to both of them. That's the pedigree collapse.

This lecturer spoke about endogamy, when families intermarry for generations. Another lecturer explained that ethnic groups share certain DNA markers. That's how they determine your ethnic estimate. I had an "aha" moment, thinking this must be why Mom and Dad share some DNA. His people and her people came from neighboring Italian towns.

I thought the chromosome browser might show that my parents' relationship is only by place.

I used a chromosome browser to see exactly where Mom and Dad are related to each other.
I used a chromosome browser to see exactly where Mom and Dad are related to each other.

On MyHeritage, I compared myself to both Mom and Dad. I found 2 chromosomes where they matched me and one another! They call this triangulation. You can see it on the chromosome browser if you compare only 2 of your DNA matches at a time. It means my parents match one another as well as me.

I wondered if any of my other matches had an intersection in the same spots. I compared several matches on the chromosome browser with no luck.

Then I saw a match whose name I recognized. She's a woman from Grandpa's hometown in Italy, and her son and his daughter are all DNA matches to both my parents. I found that all 3 of them matched at the same exact location as my parents on my chromosome 6.

Through my research I found out the man in the group is my fifth cousin. (His daughter is my 5th cousin once removed.) But the relationship is on his father's side. Think about that. His mother matches us all in the same spot, but he's my cousin through his father and my father.

I wondered if either of my parents triangulated with any of these three people. I compared each of my parents to each of the three, one pair at a time. Here's what I found:

  • The matriarch of the family triangulates with Dad only.
  • Her son (my 5th cousin) triangulates with both Mom AND Dad!
  • Her granddaughter triangulates with Dad only.

It's all a bit infuriating! I've gone very far on each of my parents' family trees. Their 37 shared centimorgans of DNA point to several possible relationships. I can rule out many because I know they do not share the common ancestor needed for these relationships.

How can this family be so intertwined with mine when the best we are is 5th cousins?
How can this family be so intertwined with mine when the best we are is 5th cousins?

All I can do is keep on fitting people from my ancestral hometowns into my family tree. Remember: You've got to document your ancestor's multiple marriages. The children from the second marriage could be your missing DNA link.

I'm also going to return to the RootsTech lectures and soak up as much information as I can about DNA. The quest continues.