Hoping for that Aha Moment in Genealogy

Genealogy and history are naturally connected.  History is made up of a series of events on a time line.  Events consist of activities of people in a specific location, on a certain date. In order to be engaging, a well-created genealogy needs to relate a story, weaving all of the above into a an interesting view of life. How exactly do we accomplish this?

I distinctly remember when I first began researching my family tree–and that was over thirty-five years ago.  I sat down with my parents, asked them many questions, and carefully wrote down their responses. I included all the “who, what, when, where and why” queries, and predictably ended up with a long list of names and dates. Then I faithfully organized what I had by filling in the traditional tree charts, and the family group sheets. But after all that, I still felt like something was missing.

twins playing indians

My sister Kathi and I. I preferred the cowgirl venue.

I was missing the story, the surprise, the aha! moment amid the plethora of data.  Of course I had a slight handicap.  My mother, like many people do, didn’t always cough up the ‘juicy’ stuff, or open the closet door to let the skeleton fall it.  It was after only years of relentless asking and re-asking that finally I wore her down.

Some of my favorite discoveries were learned almost by accident.  As a child, I wanted desperately to be a ‘cow girl’ when I grew up.  I rode my wooden rocking horse until it made permanent dents in the linoleum floor.  I loved any movie that highlighted cowboys, Indians or both.  This love led me to spontaneously ask my beloved Gram who her favorite cowboy was.  She said “Jesse James.”  I was not particular surprised by her answer.  At that time, all cowboys (cowgirls and their horses) were my idols.

Today, after plenty of exposure in print and film, we tend to think of Jesse James as a thug and murderer on horseback. But I can’t forget that sparkle in her eyes as Gram mentioned his name. He represented a modern-day Robin Hood to her. She would have been about four


Sketches from newspaper article: “Jesse James is Alive He Was Not Shot Dead by Bob Ford as Reported,” Wednesday, August 7, 1889; Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA); Page: 5

years old at his death, so she must have been influenced by someone, or by something she read.
When the next generation asks about her, I won’t mention dates or places.  Instead I will say how she idolized Jesse James; that she had the sweetest and slightly high-pitched voice; how she filled our house with amazing smells of baked goodies.  I will mention that despite giving birth and raising 11 children, she wasn’t done, as she raised and guided a few of her children’s children too. I can tie in a bit of history–that she lived through the Great Depression, so she didn’t waste anything.  She collected rain water to wash her hair in.  Coffee grounds were made her rose bushes thrive.  These sorts of events are curious and memorable, and should take priority over mundane locations  or calendars.

People are generally fascinated by sealed boxes, cornerstones, trunks in the attic that have not recently seen the light of day for years. They are anxious anticipating an amazing object to tumble out.

addie relaxing

My “Gram,” Addie (Ryan) Manning

The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary defines a time capsule as “a container used to store for posterity a selection of objects thought to be representative of life at a particular time.”  Our ancestors are in fact each their own time capsule, and should be treated with the same sense of fun and awe.

If you want to pass along a precious and memorable story to your family, treat each person in your family tree as if they are one of these sealed surprises. Based on real evidence, create a container story that you  fill with interesting artifacts representing each person’s life.  Of course you should add a few dates and places to put it all into perspective.  But allow the aha’s to outnumber the uninteresting.

Additional Reading

Have Fun History . com

Pinterest: Making History Fun


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