Writing your family history

I wish I knew what my grandparents were like since all but one died before I was three years old.  What were my great grandparents like? Or my great, great grandfather who I’ve learned was a pastor who rode a horse from one church to another in his circuit?  It is one thing to learn the names of my ancestors, but to me this has little meaning without some indication of their personalities.  I wish I could enjoy a long conversation with them.  Where did they live?  When did they get electricity?  How did they provide clothing for their families? 

For my father’s 90th birthday I made an attempt to put together pictures and information to tell his life story, and I put it into web page form to share with guests at his birthday celebration.  He helped me to write and edit some of his memories as I picked his brain for anything and everything he could tell me.  I thoroughly enjoyed the project; however, it was a temporary disappointment. Daddy’s health was deteriorating to the point that we decided to spread out the birthday celebration over three days with a series of drop-ins so he wouldn’t become too overwhelmed with so many people all at one time.  This plan gave him more time to enjoy all of his guests.  But as it turned out, there was no appropriate time to present the web page, and few guests took the time to sit at my computer and read what was written there.

I transferred the web page onto my father’s computer before I left Murfreesboro to return to my home in South Carolina.  The more I thought about it I realized that the web page was not a good solution for my father as he was no longer able to sit at his computer and navigate through the web page to read what was there.  Around Thanksgiving following my father’s June birthday celebration I began considering the possibility of putting the same files and pictures into a book he could hold while sitting in his recliner, so I began making Google searches for ways to self-publish a book.  It wasn’t long before I discovered Lulu.com, an online book printing (print-on-demand or POD) website, and I realized that I could pull it off in a very short time.  Since I was planning another trip home for Christmas, I hurriedly began the cut and paste process of transferring my web page text and picture files into a Word document that could be uploaded to Lulu.  Within two weeks I had created a file for the first draft of Dad’s book.  I hurriedly uploaded it to Lulu and put in my order for one copy to be delivered to my parents’ home in Murfreesboro before packing my clothes and driving to Tennessee.

Before I left South Carolina I learned that Dad was in the hospital, and  while I was driving through Atlanta I got a call on my cell phone that Dad was taking a turn for the worse and I should drive straight to the hospital as fast as possible.  Dad pulled through that crisis and after my second day in Murfreesboro, I was able to present him with the professional looking first draft of his book which had come in the mail.  Nothing could have made him more proud.  He showed it to every person–visitor or hospital staff–who came into his room explaining that it was a book about himself.  He read the entire book carefully and gave me more information that I added to the finished edition later.  Having taught high school English, he was also a fantastic proofreader. 

Dad never saw the final draft of his book, but he died feeling very important and appreciated.  I believe he lived an extra two weeks on the energy he gained from reading and showing the book to his guests.  Dad died in mid-January.

I share this story because I want to encourage others to write about their ancestors.  There are too many wonderful stories that die every time a person dies, even more so, the oldest among us.  Their lives have gone through so many changes as the world has gone from pre-electricity to laptops, cell phones, I-pods and MP3 players to name only a few recent advancements.  They have lived through the days of horse-drawn carriages and have seen astronauts walk on the moon and repair satellites in space.  Few children born in the last 20 years will ever know what it is like to create their own fun without TV or the latest computer games.  Those who are willing to do so can have a part in preserving the heritage that their children and grandchildren will wonder about when they are older.

Learn about your ancestors while your grandparents, aunts and uncles are still around to tell you about them.  Make a list of things to ask and write a little at a time.  Some items in your list might include:

  • Ancestry/genealogy
  • Home place(s) 
  • Childhood toys, activities, and playmates
  • Childhood chores
  • Clothing
  • School stories
  • Courtship
  • College
  • Jobs/career path
  • Transportation
  • Electricity, lighting, TV…
  • Travel

Use a recorder and take notes.  Write down the events and arrange them to suit your fancy.  Make scans of pictures and include them in your writings.  If you don’t feel like publishing the stories in a book, put them into a ring-binder notebook and continue adding to your collection of stories.  Save your computer files for sharing with family members or for making a book at some date in the future.  I will be sharing some of my memories from my own “Family Heritage Album” in the future as part of my blog.