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.