21st century tools aid family history searches
By Lou Fancher
Ironically, the passage of time has made it easier to retrieve ancient family history today than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
Before the worldwide web and the ability to access or store massive amounts of data, images, and archival records was possible, a search for ancestral stories involved digging through old letters or scrapbooks in musty attics and basements.
It sometimes meant traveling to far-away county, city, or town offices, visiting cemeteries and foreign countries, or relying on relatives whose memories were faded, possibly jaded, and limited to the people still alive.
At a Family History Month presentation at Orinda Books earlier this month, the splendor of 21st century technology and human persistence was combined with old-fashioned techniques to demonstrate the many avenues and tools that are allowing people to capture and record their family stories.
Orinda residents Tish Harwood, Helen Hasselman and Sue Severson joined Linda Harms Okazaki, president of the California Genealogical Society, to describe their processes.
Okazaki is a fourth-generation San Franciscan whose genealogy hobby was initially fired by an interest in her husband’s family’s experience in the internment camps in the United States during World War II.
Her work at CGS involves making available to people in pursuit of their family histories the library’s extensive reference materials, research services, seminars, genealogical indexes and databases and more.
Curiosity and having enough time to follow their investigative impulses, the panelists agreed, were the major reasons they began extensive explorations into their family backgrounds.
Hasselman said that learning proper research techniques for the novel she eventually wrote that is based on her family history left her with “pride in bringing it to completion.” A writing group she joined helped her to write “many small stories that made a complete history and fit together like puzzle pieces.”
Severson followed a traditional, family tree model for her hardcover book, but said there are multiple ways to be involved that don’t require the degree of effort and time that she invested.
“This is a pamphlet I made for a family reunion,” she said, displaying a slim folder that included narrative, photographs and other graphic images.
Severson suggested a number of support tools that simplify the process: online genealogy data bases at places like CGS; the “Little Family Tree” and other apps for completing family trees; historical societies, clubs and libraries as sources of information; and books that explain how to properly archive and preserve paper materials.
Harwood took perhaps the most conventional approach to producing her book. After her father died in 2007 and it was decided that the family farm in Ohio was to be sold, she and her sister sorted through their parents’ belongings. In the bottom of an old, dusty chest of drawers, Harwood discovered 350 letters exchanged between her parents in 1954. The year marked a 12-month separation when her father was getting his residency in orthopedics and her mother was left to manage the farm — and the family’s six children.
With the help of publisher Angela Zusman and technology advisor Lisa Burlini, Harwood compiled, transcribed and edited the letters and photographs and wrote the essays included in her book, “The Year Apart.”
She said the letters “gave voice to her parents,” especially to her mother, who began to display symptoms of early Alzheimer’s at age 47, just a decade after the year of letters. Harwood learned from the letters about her mother’s earlier strength and humor — and saw her siblings anew.
“It was really healing to see what nice little kids we all were when we were growing up.”
Supplementing her parents’ letters are notes written by Harwood and her siblings to their father.
“Dear Daddy,” begins one of Harwood’s letters, “Today at school I wrote a Christmam (sic) story. Do you want to hear it?” The wide-rule paper and handwritten, scroll-like loops on capital letters and even the occasional spelling errors add charm and personality to the book.
Another letter written by her sister asks her father to consult his colleagues for “medical” advice about whether or not she should clean her pet fish’s bowl once a month.
Harwood’s family knows about and contributed to the book, but has yet to see it. Plans for “a rip-roaring book release party” with 42 relatives at a family reunion in Ohio in one week’s time had her saying,”I just have never felt so great, so happy, so full of joy. (This project) has just made us all so much closer.”
A Q&A with the panel delivered information about where to find archive materials, how to get started — join a writing group, write one sentence for each year of your life going back through time to your birth, were two suggestions — and how much to disclose in a family memoir.
Lauren Dunbar, of Lafayette, said that family histories that include “dark lives of ancestors” can be grounding for young people and teach them “the full spectrum of what it means to be human.”
Writing about a family’s tender, hurt places, Dunbar said, gives opportunity to include encouraging, connecting words for future generations.