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Becoming a favorite ancestor involves more than just gathering documents. Lord knows I have file cabinets full of documents of my ancestors, but they don’t necessarily tell me what these folks were like or give details of their daily lives. In addition to interviewing your relatives for ancestral stories, try quizzing them about what they remember of your childhood. Bring along your digital recorder to capture the memories to transcribe later. Or set up a video camera in an inconspicuous corner during mealtime, then sway the conversation to your childhood and see what stories people love to tell to embarrass you. My mom delights in telling the story of how I wet my pants in first grade. Ah, the memories.
Talk not just to older relatives and your parents, but also to siblings and cousins, and if possible, childhood friends. That’s what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin did for her childhood memoir Wait Till Next Year (Simon & Schuster). “To provide a larger context for my childhood adventures …
This old house
You may get lucky and find a photograph of your childhood home online. The house I grew up in was located at 15617 Dalmatian Ave. in La Mirada, Calif. When I did a Google search on the address, it brought up LA Life, which had a street-view photo of the house as it looks today and a bird’s-eye view of the street. It also told me how much the house recently sold for, which was a heck of a lot more than my dad paid for it in the mid-1960s. To find out average home prices in the 20th century and other trivia, such as the price of gasoline or a loaf of bread, go to <www.thepeoplehistory.com>. Even if you don’t get as lucky as I did, you can at least get a bird’s-eye view of your old neighborhood on Google Maps.
I thought for sure my descendants would love me just because I’ve been keeping a daily diary since age 9. Then I dug out my journals and read them. Hmm. Now I understand why people burn their diaries. The ones from my early years are frustratingly sparse, with random entries like these:
July 23, 1965: I played school with Carol. Me and Carol had a fight.
July 24, 1965: I played Barbies with Carol. Me and Carol went to the toy store.
But one of my ongoing projects is annotating my diaries. Whether or not I remember the events I wrote about, I still can fill out missing details, thoughts and impressions with hindsight. To tackle a task like this, it’s best not to write directly on the original page; keep it intact. Either photocopy or scan the page then add your notations, or transcribe the diary so you can type more details. You can keep this computer-generated version as a printout with your original diary. Here’s an example of my diary entry and the annotation:
Today school is out. We do not go to school. But I went to school to help the teacher. The teacher gave me and Carol some papers.
- Write two pages of uninspiring diary entries.
- Write two pages of a useless sentence that sticks in your head.
- Write two pages of what you wish you could still do.
For almost all the 10 things I couldn’t remember, I was able to record other things I did remember, and I could usually find ways, as with the suggestions here, to recover more pieces of the memory. As Thomas writes in her book, “Maybe just saying what it is you can’t remember gets the engine to turn over.”
13 oral history tips
Visual guide to house styles video
Writing your life story
Social history research tips
Census Secrets CD
From the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine