If you’re a genealogist, wouldn’t you be thrilled to discover hundreds of pages – maybe thousands of pages – of personal memoirs by your ancestors?
Even if they needed translating, you’d have hundreds of names of relatives with all their relationships lined up for you. You’d have the life stories of your forebears, with all the information about where they lived, what kind of work they did and what economic pressures they faced.
You’d also have the story of how your immigrant ancestors came to America and ended up in their permanent homes.
Unfortunately, most of our ancestors did not write memoirs. They faced obstacles unimaginable to us, and perhaps they couldn’t read or write.
But you can do it, and your descendants – starting with your children and grandchildren – will thank you for having done it.
Here’s the basic principle for writing your memoirs: break up your life into “chapters” and then ask and answer questions.
Begin with childhood. When and where were you born? Who were your parents and how did they earn a living and raise you? Did you go shopping with Mom, or maybe hiking with Dad? Did you have brothers and sisters? Who were your neighbors? Did you enjoy or hate school?
No detail is too humble. Was milk delivered to your door? Did your family listen to the radio or gather around a piano in the evening? Be sure to focus on areas of life that have since changed, such as the neighborhood movie house or drugstore soda fountain.
Remember, you’re writing for family (maybe genealogists) who might be far removed in time from your childhood. So be sure to give full names of relatives and tell exactly how they were related to you. Was cousin Mary a first or second cousin, and was she on your mother’s or father’s side?
Not sure about a detail, such as an old street address or the exact name of the company where Mom or Dad worked? Don’t worry; just go on and double back later to fill in the blanks.
When you feel you’ve covered a period of your life, take a break and then go on to the next logical one. Think in terms of broad areas of your life, such as education, your first job, military service, marriage, buying a home, starting a family, beginning a business, overcoming a setback, moving. These, and other topics, can be the informal “chapters” of your memoirs.
Here is a caution – an important one. Give full information, but don’t go off on tangents. Let’s say you liked the music of XYZ. Say so, but don’t write pages of biography about XYZ. Tell who he is (was), but keep the focus on yourself: how you encountered his music, why you liked it, what concerts or dance halls you attended. If you go off on long tangents, you might never finish your memoirs.
So get started. It doesn’t matter if you use a computer or yellow pad. Just sit down and do it.
The generations are waiting.
News Notes: Genealogists planning research at the Bishop Memorial Library of the Luzerne County Historical Society should remember that the society’s facilities routinely close for the entire month of February. The library and other facilities also close for holiday weekends.
The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society Research Library, in Hanover Township, will close Friday for its annual break and will reopen in January on a date to be announced.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader genealogy columnist. Reach him at [email protected]