Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thinking About Summertime

Yes, I know spring has barely begun, but I have my mind on summer. Well, at least a California summer.

Here in California, by the time June arrives, we have long forgotten the cool breezes of March's spring. We are on to summer. And a summery June is the perfect time for my annual trek down south to take in yet another SCGS Genealogy Jamboree.

This year, the Southern California Genealogical Society is hosting their annual extravaganza on June 9 through 11 at their usual location in Burbank. What always clinches the deal for me, though, is the previous day's feature: their DNA day, this year dubbed Genetic Genealogy 2017: Diving into DNA.

As you can tell from their list of speakers—just for the one-day Genetic Genealogy session on June 8—the conference assembles a wide variety of experts in the field. Better yet, extended workshops are offered for the following morning for those who have already begun their pursuit of genetic genealogy research insights and want more in-depth training.

Jamboree is not just about genetic genealogy, though—as much as some of us would be happy to focus on that one discipline—but offers a wide variety of classes in other specialties. SCGS provides three "Heritage Focus" opportunities this year: the African-American track, the British Isles track, and the Armenian track.

Early bird registration closes on April 22. Yeah, that sounds like a long time from now. But it will be here before you know it. After all, the very first day of April is here this coming Saturday—and that's no April Fool's joke.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the Other Hand . . .

It is a wonderful thing if your genealogy quest branches out to lead you into collectibles territory. History can provide so many inspirations for further research pursuits, and sometimes those pursuits can lead to tangible collections.

There is one caveat in order, should you find yourself stepping full speed into collecting items significant to your family history: collections mean very little, in the long run, if you don't pair that with the generosity of sharing. It would mean very little to the world, for instance, if Gloria Austin—whose collection of carriages I mentioned yesterday—chose to have her priceless historic specimens kept behind closed doors, for her enjoyment alone. By allowing the public to step inside the doors of her museum, she not only shared, but served to inspire an interest in the history of specific details of a bygone era.

I've been reading a library book lately that is targeted to artists. It provides a list of ten cardinal rules for young creatives who want to be successful at their craft. Among those ten rules is one which seems, at first, to be directly opposed to the concept of assembling collectibles: "Open up your cabinet of curiosities."

By this rule, author Austin Kleon speaks to those who see the product of their work—as well as the resources which inspired their work—as something to be kept under wraps until just the right moment or the right person.

Under a subheading for this rule, Kleon's book Show Your Work! proclaims, "Don't be a hoarder."

The author explains,
If you happened to be wealthy and educated and alive in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, it was fashionable to have a Wunderkammern, a "wonder chamber," or a "cabinet of curiosities" in your house—a room filled with rare and remarkable objects that served as a kind of external display of your thirst for knowledge of the world.

Basically, it was what, in modern times, became what we call a museum—only back then, it was a collection of wonders reserved for a very limited audience.

Times are different now, of course, and philanthropists and collectors have partnered to make such collections open to the public at nominal charge. Even so, it's not only the rich and famous who have made these collections accessible, but everyday people may find themselves the source of significant collections.

And not all of these collections are of expensive, large objects. As Austin Kleon observed,
We all have our own treasured collections. They can be physical cabinets of curiosities, say, living room bookshelves full of our favorite novels, records, and movies, or they can be more like intangible museums of the heart, our skulls lined with memories of places we've been, people we've met, experiences we've accumulated.... These mental scrapbooks form our tastes and our tastes influence our work.

In asking, "Where do you get your inspiration," Kleon concludes,
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.

Much of the work of a genealogist involves both the examination of others' collections and the assemblage of our own. Certainly our end product—the documentation and explanation of our own family's history—becomes a collection in its own right. And just like Kleon's rule for all creatives—which includes us as genealogists and documentarians of our family histories—we need to consider just how we are going to go about sharing that collection of facts, figures, and wonderful vignettes.

By the time it's all said and done, we need to remember: no hoarding.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Branching Out From History

Researching one's family history can reawaken that sense of wonder inspired by hearing ancestors' stories. I don't know about you, but I can be taken up by the stories unfolding as I research my family's history.

Sometimes, that rapt attention can take me far afield of the strict confines of genealogy. Knowing some streets have been named after particular ancestors in my tree, I find myself wondering how it came to be that a certain street received its name. I know others have fallen in love with house histories, learning more about the succession of people who once lived in the home owned by an ancestor.

This past weekend, I spent some time at a place inspired by someone obsessed with learning the history of one particular accoutrement of a bygone century's daily life. As much as our generation—indeed, the entire past century—has been taken up with automobiles, prior centuries' transportation needs were answered, not by horsepower of a machine, but by the power of horses.

The place I visited was a museum dedicated to exhibiting and explaining the history of the various contraptions devised by man to be pulled by history's workhorses. From humble wagons to the dress chariots of royalty, this particular museum examined the many variations that form of transportation has taken over the centuries.

The location is The Grand Oaks Resort and Museum in Lady Lake, Florida. Within the peaceful spread of the property is the Carriage Museum, featuring the collection of European and American carriages of all types, assembled by Gloria Austin, author and founder of the Equine Heritage Institute.

Though the facility itself is rather plain, the array of carriages housed in the collection is impressive. Each display includes a descriptive plaque to inform visitors on the self-guided tour of the collection. Included, where possible, is the provenance of each carriage—although, admittedly, there are some notable parts of the collection for which no explanation can be provided as to how the piece ended up where Ms. Austin and her advisors discovered it before its acquisition, such as the gala coupe of Franz Josef, former head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Walking through the exhibit, my mind wandered to thoughts of just how enthusiasm for specific topics can branch out into fervent pursuit of related fields. Just as the love of equestrian sports surely inspired the questions that led to such an impressive collection of carriages, how could genealogy inspire related pursuits of collectibles? Each family may have specific interests which could evolve into a passion for an expanded collection.

It's not quite as if we collect people. Of course not. But some families may have members who love music or have old instruments from significant sources. Or that may love needlework or quilting and have a collection that can tell a more detailed story about the family members who once loved them or created them. I often look at the bookshelves in my living room and bedrooms, stacked double, and wonder what someone might glean about the inhabitants in our home, or what they might surmise we are like, based on the titles we own.

Each of the members of our family tree had artifacts that, themselves, could tell tales about the people who owned them. Granted, many of those tales were subsequently lost by too-enthusiastic de-cluttering descendants. But those who have been fortunate to inherit antiques from bygone generations in their family have sometimes also obtained the stories behind those prized pieces.

No matter what collectibles we might find ourselves branching into from the original pursuit of our family tree, those items, themselves, can reveal more about the very people we are trying to research. It is as if our ancestors left the fingerprints of their lives on the items that passed through their hands—and eventually to us. Learning to capture those otherwise invisible records—and learn how to properly interpret them—is an acquired skill that can augment our genealogical pursuits.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Facing the Music

Alright, I admit it: I've been away, playing in Florida instead of being glued to my desk chair, busy chasing those elusive brick wall ancestors. Now, it's time to face the music and see how much I actually accomplished after the customary two weeks' measurement of work. I can tell you already: not that much.

I managed to gain a whopping twenty two verified names on my mother's tree, bringing her total to 9,696. For my mother in law's tree, I didn't do much better: edged up thirty nine to total 10,534.

Of course, if I don't rectify that imbalance, the disparity between those two trees will only grow more obvious, so I'll need to pay more attention to how much time I spend on each family. I find myself working more on my mother in law's family, because they are just so much easier to track. Time to bite that bullet and tackle the harder side of ye olde family tree.

The rate of increase in DNA matches garnered at each company has slowed, now that all the holiday season's sales—and the Christmas gifts they inspired—have been run through the mill. I now have 1,895 matches at Family Tree DNA, an increase of thirty seven matches, and my husband has 1,201, which is up twenty eight. AncestryDNA has likewise seen their numbers settle down. My count there is at 489 matches at fourth cousin or closer, which was an advance of only fifteen in the last two weeks. My husband's count there now stands at 232, an increase of only six.

Things will soon be changing at Family Tree DNA, though this won't necessarily affect our number of matches for autosomal tests. However, since both my husband and I also chose to do the separate mitochondrial DNA test—the one showing the mother's mother's mother's line—we've recently been informed that the company will be doing a significant update early next Tuesday morning. Moving from "Build 14" to "Build 17" (which is the most recent phylogenetic build for the mtDNA test), this update will be the fruition of several months of work.

As the company put it in a recent email sent out to project managers,
To give you an idea of the scope of this project, Build 14 was based on the analysis of 8,216 modern mitogenomes, while Build 17 was designed using 24,275 mtDNA sequences—almost three times as much information! Build 17 increased to 5437 nodes from 3550 in Build 14, an increase of 1887 haplogroups.
This is a significant revision. According to FTDNA, "the update provides a much finer resolution in terms of haplogroup assignment." I'm sure there will be many who are curious to see what that does for their predicted matrilineal haplogroups, once the update is run.

Of course, this also means down time for access to the FTDNA system early next Tuesday morning, from 5:00 to about 8:30 in the Central Daylight (U.S.) time zone, or until the switch is completed. By the time that is all settled, I should be home from my travels and back up to speed with my usual research progress. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being the One

Not all that long ago, one of my elder relatives had completed extensive work on his family tree. He and I did get the chance to have a few discussions about our mutual discoveries before he passed away. I remember, a few years after that point, one of the cousins I've since been visiting this week comment that, sometime when I come to visit, I'd really enjoy getting to look through all his notebooks.

Yes, I would. I'm still looking forward to that visit. Perhaps soon, I'll get that treat. But in the meantime, it reminds me of something.

There are so many of my fellow researchers who have no one in their family with whom to share their enthusiasm about the family's stories. They are consigned to a fate of having to revel in their discoveries alone. While all of us who are smitten with the genealogy bug thrive on being able to share our discoveries with fellow enthusiasts, the more usual burden we face is to be the only one in the family who cares about this personal history.

Such of us as are relegated to this fate realize a corollary to that dilemma: if no one in the family steps up to share our joy in genealogical discoveries, then who will take up our work when we are gone?

I always like to take the positive approach, when consoling others to whom that realization has dawned, encouraging them that someday, someone will step up to pick up where we left off. And there have been some times when I've seen that happen for some families. Just in the nick of time, a great-niece or distant cousin will start exhibiting interest in what we've uncovered, ask a few questions...and then a few more. Pretty soon, that person has moved from apprentice to fellow researcher to inheritor of "the stuff."

It wasn't until this week's visits with family that it occurred to me: perhaps for this cousin's father, I have turned out to be that one—the one in the family who finally steps up and turns out to be the one to carry the research task forward into the next generation. I never thought of myself as anyone else's research successor; I only thought of myself as carrying out my own research calling.

I've felt that sense of relief from some of my fellow researchers when they finally find someone to pick up where they left off—a sense that all that work wouldn't go to waste, wouldn't be forgotten. Yet never did I think of myself as the one who would pick up the baton and run this tag team race for another researcher. Though it was never a promise made, nor material passed on, in effect, that is now what is happening.

Someday, hopefully, I'll actually get my hands on that man's notebooks and see for myself the records he uncovered in carefully cataloging his family line. It will be exciting to actually see what work has already been done. But in the meantime, it is such an awe-inspiring feeling to realize one is a part of something bigger—a project passed down through the generations, with details too big for just one researcher to handle alone. Even more important, how exciting to be the one who enables the work of another to live on for at least a few more years. What a way to preserve the story for yet another generation.

And now, I'll get to be the one awaiting the revelation of just who it will be who will step up next to be the one to carry the work forward. After all, there will always be yet another generation.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Filling in the Blanks

How important it is to take the opportunity to interview relatives—not just once but as many times, over the years, as possible. Yes, in the earlier years, people certainly have fresher memories of their older relatives. But some things come to the forefront of memory right after the fact, pushing aside reflections that only evolve into greater insight later. Sometimes, those secondary reflections can be more telling than the original reporting of the factual side of memories.

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with my cousin and his wife yesterday. While I've plied him with family questions repeatedly over the years—he has graciously been the one with the patience to keep at it, no matter how many questions I've had—there is always more to learn.

This time, our visit was more in the style of a reminiscing chat than the step by step note-taking tasks of earlier years. We puzzled together over the enigmas in our family's history, why certain relatives were so reticent to tell about their experiences in conversation. And as we talked about our research frustrations, our own conversation mirrored the pattern that, eventually, have gotten a few others in the preceding generation to open up and talk.

Our main research problem is that our grandfather never told anyone much about his past. He tried to pass himself off as a descendant of an Irishman, when in fact he was Polish. Part of that, we now understand, was both a case of economic necessity and political survival in an era when there was no Poland—those of Polish descent were considered to be part of Germany in a war era in which that ethnic background was not viewed favorably. But there was something else quite mysterious about his choice to conceal his background. We knew next to nothing about him—even this cousin who, unlike myself, knew him personally.

Having already beat that issue soundly—rehashing our research problem yielded no further clues—our visit turned to a time of reminiscing about various relatives. Because my dad—his uncle—was a professional musician during the time in which New York City had a much more active show scene, my cousin often had the opportunity to go visit him at the theater in which he played. What a thrill for a teenager to have the opportunity to sit backstage or in the orchestra pit during a show—and to rub shoulders with some big names in the entertainment field. And what an eye opener to see these people, behind the scenes, when others knew only of their public personalities.

My cousin got to telling some stories about his observations of my dad in action at work that I've never heard. Of course, as much as our grandfather never talked about himself, apparently, neither did my dad. I came away from yesterday's visit gleaning a few examples of just what my dad was like in action—character clues I'd otherwise have never seen through anyone else's eyes.

Just getting that gift of gab flowing was helpful. No agenda at hand to pump for specific details. Sometimes, a plot like that only bogs down the conversation. Better not to have that sense of a desperado, absolutely having to achieve that interview mission before leaving—as if it were for the last time, or else. Far better to view the interview process as a series that can be revisited as needed, rather than a once-for-all, or else, process.

My brother had used that same approach once, during a visit at my aunt's eightieth birthday party. Rather than the do-or-die approach, he just settled in for a nice, comfortable chat as he gently drew my aunt down memory lane. Surely my aunt was flattered at the attention. But she also was tracking with him as he walked her from one memory of favorite relatives, to "the time when..." opportunities to talk about recollections of good times.

The episode had taken on the aura of a conversation rather than an interview. There were no questions that could be "answered wrong." The give and take of the conversation meant both parties were contributing to the memories. And when my aunt's memory ran into dim or hazy patches, my brother had been able to deftly steer her towards parts of the episode that she could remember more clearly.

While our visit with my cousin and his wife yesterday certainly didn't encounter those kinds of memory hazards, it was just a more relaxing experience to hear those memories unfold. Not driven by an agenda of getting all those questions answered, but by the enjoyment of letting the mind travel down the memory lanes chosen at the moment, I got to learn a lot about family members in the years preceding my own arrival, late, on the family scene.

Sometimes, it's when we limit ourselves to specific time frames or sets of questions that simply must be answered that we miss all that can come our way. Why limit ourselves to the be-all, end-all approach to interviewing, when taking the opportunity to have yet another visit with a cherished family member can be not only so much more enjoyable, but informative as well.      

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's Still True—
The Vital Importance of Oral Interviews

I'm on the road again. Near relatives, of course. So naturally, I have the opportunity to interview these folks—but did I think of that when I first started planning my trip? Of course not. Somehow, in my mind, the concept of genealogical research had morphed from pen on paper and face-to-face inquiry to online pursuits.

I suspect your experience might have become the same. After all, there is so much that can be accomplished online in our quest to document the lives of our forebears. Digitized documents bring the array of necessary paperwork right to our desks, thanks to some well-placed taps on the computer keyboard by our little fingertips. Who moans about snail mail delays anymore?

The invisible corollary that may have suffered in the demise of old fashioned research legwork might be the face to face interview. Since we can obtain so much from virtual expeditions, why leave the comfort of our armchair to actually go visit those relatives we haven't seen in months, er, years?

So here I am in Florida, home of relatives on three sides of our collective families. How can I not take this opportunity? But I find my interviewing skills somewhat rusty. And, in odd contrast, I also find those interviewing skills supercharged by having my genealogical notes right at hand, accessible for any questions with the click of a mouse or a tap on my iPad.

Meeting with my mother's cousin—the baby of her generation and one of the few remaining in that cohort—she pulled out a piece of paper to discuss the fine points of our McClellan line, needing a place to sketch out the pedigree. As she spoke, I double checked her information against what I had already entered in my records.

I was fortunate that this cousin was daughter of a man who, though now long gone, had left extensive research notes, himself. What a treasure! What an opportunity to carry on from where his work left off.

Another plus was the warnings this cousin was able to give. Apparently, as sometimes happens, a distant relative had circulated some erroneous information on this tree, and my visitor was concerned that I steer clear of this disinformation. I'm so glad for the heads up—something that couldn't be provided except by those who have already worked on their family history.

The line we two share happens to be the McClellan line I've recently been discussing. I'm pursuing the political involvement of members of this family, down through the generations, and had been keen on plying this cousin with questions. She personally remembered the closer generations of this family and was able to verify what I had stumbled upon, online. While McClellan isn't exactly a Smith kind of surname, there are quite a few out there with this name. If you don't think so, just google "George McClellan" and see how far afield your search can bring you. A middle initial and dates for lifespan can make all the difference in the world.

Today, I'll be headed off in another direction: to visit a cousin on my father's side. He, too, will have the benefit of a family member who has delved into genealogical research, but in this case, it is someone younger than both of us—his daughter. While I can share notes with her on what she has discovered, I'll save that for another trip. For today's visit, it's most vital that I ply my cousin with questions about his personal memories of all the family members on my father's side of the family.

The unique perspective that this cousin can provide is his personal experience with many of the relatives no longer with us—people he knew as a child and young adult, whom I never had the opportunity to meet, let alone get to know. This line, if you recall, descends from an immigrant who arrived in New York harbor and soon after changed his name, hoping to obliterate any trace of his former self—whatever that past might have entailed.

When the topic of oral interviews is brought up, many researchers assume that signals an initial interview—the kind where the older generation faces a barrage of questions about names, dates, and locations suitable to include as a new researcher begins a pedigree chart. That process, in my case, has long been completed, thus don't expect a helpful how-to list for launching your own interview process.

Despite having moved far beyond those initial research steps, I still find it valuable to engage in oral interviews. Only in my case, I'm looking to verify details found online and stitch together the facts behind unusual discoveries that don't make sense on paper.

I have another reason for taking this second opportunity for oral interviews. As my mother's cousin reminded me yesterday, she and her brother are among the last of that generation. If any of their memories are to be preserved for future generations, now is the time.

The cousin I am going to visit today had once commented about our grandparents to me, "If only I had thought to ask those questions when they were still around." So true. I've heard numerous people echo that same sentiment—and I'm not even related to them! We all lose when we, in our young lives, are too busy with our own commitments to reach out and preserve the treasures soon to slip away.

When I teach beginners how to launch their genealogical pursuits, of course I include that stock line of instruction—to interview family members to help these beginners fill in the lines on their pedigree charts. Usually, though, most of the people taking my classes are soon-to-be or recently retired. A fair number of them have already lost their parents; grandparents are out of the question.

Does this mean I shouldn't offer that advice? Of course not. Though people such as those in my classes may not have the luxury of sitting down to a delightful discussion with their grandparents, they can still set aside time to visit with other relatives. While younger aunts and uncles are still available, that's an avenue. Reaching out to the extended family—such as my visit with my mother's cousin the other day—is an option. Keep in mind that, at least in some families, wide age differences may yield possibilities. For instance, in my family, my oldest sibling is twenty years older than I am; that's two decades of family memories I was unable to be part of, but which I can gather via discussions with those who were there.

Every moment that slips by pulls with it the chance to recapture memories of your family's experiences. But there is no need to give up the pursuit just because your parents are no longer with you. Until you are the oldest one remaining, the last one left in your generation, keep plugging away with questions about family memories. Even if all you are left with is your sister or brother who is a year or two younger than you, keep asking questions; some people remember events differently than the others who went through the "same" experience.

No matter how big your family tree has become, or how many documents you can retrieve thanks to your online subscriptions, you simply cannot rely solely on your online research prowess. While people may err in memories of dates or middle names of second cousins twice removed, what they do remember are the shared experiences with other family members—the stories which yield the flavor of just what those ancestors were once like. This is the only way to complete the telling of your family's story—all the rest, to a novice audience, becomes fodder for that "my eyes glaze over" reception. 

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