“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Simple enough question. We ask kids this all the time. While my childhood friends responded to curious grown-ups with “I want to be a fireman,” or “I want to be a nurse,” I chimed in with, “I want to be an ancestor.”
Maybe it was because I started climbing my ancestral tree when I was about 10, getting initiated into the world of pedigree charts and family skeletons in an old, spooky cemetery—every genealogist’s dream come true. That’s where I met my first real, live genealogist, who gave me an ancestor chart and instructed me on how to get started. Ever since that day, I think, I’ve been preparing for my ultimate fate: the day when I become an ancestor.
You see, once I discovered those frustrating gaps in my own ancestor’s lives that I couldn’t fill, and realized certain coveted records were blocked from my access because of privacy laws, I decided I wouldn’t let that happen to the next generation of whippersnapper genealogists. I would leave records of myself. Maybe I’m denying my descendants some of the fun in searching for me, but I’m confident they’ll run into enough brick walls on other lines that they’ll be thanking me instead.
So how can you become a lovable ancestor in the eyes of your future kin? Follow the search for yourself and see how easy it is.
Naturally, if you haven’t gathered records about you, now’s the time to get going. Privacy laws prevent your family from getting them, but you have free reign in this territory. Start with your birth, then make a list of all the records you would’ve generated in your lifetime: birth certificate, baptismal certificate, school records, marriage documents, deeds to property you’ve owned, military records, medical files, employment records and so forth. The only record you’ll obviously have to hold off on is your death certificate—though you could write your obituary and put that in your genealogical files.
If your parents are still living and they’re willing, gather similar records about them that might require their signatures to gain access. Once your parents become ancestors, you might have trouble getting documents. My parents, for example, were married in New York, which has strict vital records laws. Although they could get copies of their marriage certificate anytime, I’d have to either get their signatures on my request or, if they were deceased, provide proof. Non-descendants would have to wait out New York’s 50-year privacy period.
On the other hand, you can obtain a number of records without your parents’ knowledge or consent. I was able to get my hands on my parents’ divorce records and deeds from houses they purchased during my childhood.
Head count countdown
You’ve probably lived through a number of censuses. If you haven’t been making photocopies of census questionnaires as you or your parents filled them out, you’ll have to wait until those censuses become public to view them again. The privacy period on censuses expires 72 years after they were taken; 1940 will become available in April 2012. (Read more about this census in the May 2010 Family Tree Magazine
.) The first census I’m on is 1960, but by the time it’s released in 2032, I’ll be 76. I probably won’t live long enough to see all the enumerations that counted me as a child, but fortunately, I started making photocopies of the censuses I filled out as an adult beginning in 1980. I’ve put them in my genealogy files. We just had the 2010 census—did you make a copy for your files?
Although you can fill out form BC-600 from the Census Bureau
and request your entry from the 1950 to 2000 censuses, it’ll cost you $65 a pop. I have a more cost-effective idea: Why not re-create those enumerations you didn’t copy? At IPUMS
(Integrated Public Use Microdata Series), you’ll find the questions asked in each census year. Using those, be your own enumerator and reconstruct your household for each census year. Put that information in your files with a note that says the date you filled it out and an explanation of what you’ve done. Your descendants can then compare when they have access to the “real” form.
Center of attention
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 …
I sought out the companions of my youth, finding almost everyone who lived on my block,” Goodwin says.
Tracking down pals from elementary school has gotten easier with social networking sites such as Classmates.com
. Even if you knew your high school girlfriend only by her maiden name, on school alumni sites women usually post the name they used in school. I’d lost track of my “BFF” from elementary school—we hadn’t seen each other in more than 30 years—but I easily found her on Classmates.com.
Don’t be surprised if someone else’s memories of your childhood differ from yours. That comes with the territory. But chances are they’ll remember details you don’t—events in your life that might otherwise be lost.
This old house
Some people lived in the same house until getting married, but if you’re a military brat or your family moved a lot like mine did, you can count several residences during your life. Begin by making a list of the places you lived. If you can remember or have old records that give you addresses, all the better. If not, city directories should help.
Sketch the floor plans of houses you’ve lived in, and ask relatives who remember the house to add other details. On another sheet, include your memories of furnishings, wall decorations, carpeting, the backyard, neighbors and any other information that comes to you about the house. If you have photographs, scan them and keep copies with the floor plan and description.
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.
What special events do you recall from your childhood? Mine was pretty mundane, but two unusual occasions stick out in my mind: First, our house was burglarized when we went back east to visit family one Christmas. Second was when we attended the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
Although I don’t remember the date of the burglary, I do remember these facts: I was about 11 or 12 years old, which means the burglary must’ve occurred in 1967 or 1968; the town was Mineral Wells, Texas; and the time of year was December—enough information to start looking in local newspapers that might be digitized and searchable at a subscription site such as GenealogyBank
. If they’re not online, I’d have to view them on microfilm through interlibrary loan, by going to the local library or a repository that holds the film, or by hiring someone in the area to search for me. Another record I can seek is the police report by googling the town police department, then e-mailing or writing to see if it has an archive of these records.
Initially, I didn’t remember much about that 1964 World’s Fair. But I interviewed my mom and my older cousins who went with us. I also tracked down several books about the fair and, through a Google search, discovered old photos and information about the fair. One World’s Fair site in particular, <www.westland.net/ny64fair
>, has maps of the fairgrounds as well as descriptions of the exhibits to jog my memory.
In putting together that piece of my life to leave for my descendants, I bought an official souvenir book I found on Amazon.com
<amazon.com> and printed out pages from the World’s Fair site. I added to the collection a short page of my memories and the souvenirs I kept from the trip: a silver charm bracelet and postcards.
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.
Although my grammar thankfully improved in later years, the entries from my preteen period show an embarrassing, almost stalkerlike affection toward the Smothers Brothers, in which I recorded every detail of every episode of their television show, including the names of the writers, producer and director. And my teen diaries during the ’70s sexual revolution—well, let’s just say those won’t be suitable for viewing until long after I’m dead.
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:
June 18 
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.
I don’t remember this, but Carol was my best friend in elementary school. Her name was Carol James, and she lived down the street from me on Dalmatian Avenue. I still have my class photos, and during the 1964-1965 school year, I attended third grade at Charlotte Anthony School in La Mirada, and our teacher was Mrs. Geeson.
On the class photo sheet, I had drawn an arrow pointing to me (no one is identified). Carol is the girl two pictures to the right of mine. To complete this annotation, I would scan the class photos to go with the scan of the diary page and my page of notes.
If you don’t keep a diary, it’s never too late to start. A diary can be anything you want it to be, from a recitation of the day’s events to walks down memory lane. If you have an ancestor’s diary, think of the excitement you felt when you discovered and read it. That’s how your descendants will feel.
Consider, too, the fate of your diaries after you depart this life. Rather than leave them to chance, make provisions for them in your will. They are protected by copyright, and that copyright protection lasts for your lifetime plus 70 years. You can assign your copyright to someone, or put provisions on your written work; for example, saying you don’t want any portion published in print or online until so many years after your death.
Just as you’d research what daily life was like in your ancestor’s day to write a biographical sketch, do the same for your own life. Look for social histories by decades that describe trends, fashions, home décor and pop culture, such as The Encyclopedia of Sixties Cool: A Celebration of the Grooviest People, Events, and Artifacts of the 1960s by Chris Strodder (Santa Monica Press) or As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling. From these books, write about your life as you remember it during a particular decade.
Check to see if newspapers from your childhood are online, or order a few issues on microfilm via interlibrary loan. Read through the paper and record your memories and impressions of life at a particular time. Major libraries may have old issues of photographic magazines, too, such as Look and LIFE, or other publications you might have read as a child and teen, such as Boy’s Life or Tiger Beat magazine.
Remember the Sears Wish Book catalog that came out every year for the holidays? Mine was dog-eared by Thanksgiving. While my copies are long gone, I can find books such as Dolls and Teddy Bear Department: Memorable Catalog Pages from the Legendary Sears Christmas Wishbooks of the 1950s and 1960s and Boys’ Toys of the Fifties and Sixties: Memorable Catalog Pages from the Legendary Sears Christmas Wishbooks 1950-1969 (both from Windmill Press). I promise, these books are just as much fun to leaf through as the original catalogs were. Scan photographs and descriptions of the toys you remember having to include in your family history files, along with your memories about the toy: why it was or wasn’t your favorite, what the doll or stuffed animal’s name was, which friends played with you and what became of the toy.
I discovered recently that the best trigger for my trapped childhood memories was reading childhood memoirs written by other people. I didn’t think I had a lot in common with Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer who lived from 1924 to 2004 and had spent time in a mental institution (friends may disagree). Even though I was born 32 years after she was and lived some 6,500 miles from New Zealand, while reading her Autobiography, memories of my own childhood started seeping back into my gray matter. I can’t even tell you now what specifically Frame wrote to spark my journey backward—it could have been something as subtle as a word or a phrase. But I began keeping a steno notepad by me as I read, and before I knew it, I had pages of notes about things I had long forgotten. As I read more childhood memoirs, my own memories kept surfacing.
Though it’s helpful to find a contemporary memoir, surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be written by someone in your age group or someone who shares a similar background. Maya Angelou and I certainly didn’t share a common childhood, either, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings brought additional entries to my steno pad. Memories unlocked themselves just from reading about childhood adventures. See the box at right for more memory-jogging memoirs.
Reread the books and comic books you might’ve read as a child or teen, too, such as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series or Archie and Superman comics. Now you can track down many long-out-of-print books online. One of my favorites in sixth grade was The Haunted Pool
by Phyllis A. Whitney. On Amazon.com, I was able to purchase a used copy and relive the fun of reading it. Also take a look at Image Cascade Publishing’s website
for girls’ fiction books from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
A good project for those long winter months when you’re cooped up during a snowstorm or you just don’t feel like venturing about is to start captioning childhood photographs. I don’t mean just recording the names of people in a photograph and the date it was taken, but writing a short essay about the image and what you remember about the occasion. Start with those images that immediately trigger a memory, then work your way to those that don’t.
For the pictures that escape your memory, begin by writing about the child you see in the photo, as if it were someone else and not yourself. How old does the child look? What is he or she wearing? Was it taken inside or outside? What season was it? Who might have taken the photograph? What is the child’s mood? Can you speculate on why the child might have been happy or sad in the photo? Was there an occasion for the picture, such as a birthday or holiday or vacation? As you write about what you see and the impressions the photo instills in you, it may unleash some memories. And if it doesn’t, you’ll still have some interesting speculation that only you could offer about yourself in the photograph.
Gathering your memories and memorabilia is all well and good, but your efforts will be meaningless unless you tie together all the loose threads for your descendants. Writing about your life doesn’t have to be a cradle-to-today autobiography. Just like writing a diary, you can write your life story any way you want. For example, you can become a memorable ancestor by leaving a notebook of short essays.
Abigail Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir (AARP) contains numerous, often quirky and unusual, writing prompts to get you started:
- 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.
Last summer, I attended a workshop led by Thomas, and one of our assignments was to write two pages of what you don’t remember. Your first reaction might be like mine: Now that’s silly. If I can’t remember it, how can I write about it? But I was surprised at how much I could write about something I didn’t think I remembered. Try it yourself: Begin by making a list of 10 things you don’t remember. I couldn’t recall the name of the Italian restaurant where we used to eat regularly when I was a kid, but after I wrote that, I realized I did remember what we ate (usually spaghetti or pizza), what the restaurant looked like (small, maybe able to seat 50 people), that it was in a strip mall, how it smelled when you walked in (oregano, garlic, tomatoes) and how it was decorated (red-and-white-checkered plastic tablecloths, plastic grapes and candles dripping down over basketed Chianti bottles).
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.”
Becoming an ancestor isn’t so difficult after all, especially when you follow the Golden Rule of Genealogy: Leave for your descendants what you wish your ancestors had left for you.
Tip: Use Chronicling America <chroniclingamerica.loc.gov> to identify local newpapers and see if they’re available online.
From the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine